Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Marriage Plot: A Book Report

Here's how Jeffrey Eugenides tells this story: Each section starts in the present and continues for just a couple of pages. (eg. The novel opens with main character Madeleine waking up hungover on her graduation day from Brown in 1982.) Then, we go back six months to a year or more so it can be explained how everything leading up to where we are now came to be that way. (eg., Madeleine had been dating mysterious, but sexy, Leonard, but they fought and broke up. And she'd also fought with her friend Mitchell, who is secretly in love with her.) Then, once we're caught up on everything, the story continues onward. (eg. Leonard and Madeleine reconcile. Mitchell's left out in the cold, and goes to Europe.)

Of course, that's a fine way to tell a story. But here's the problem: The "rehashing" parts are all much, much longer than the real-time parts, so the novel has the effect of seeming like a book report of the book this book was supposed to be. We feel like we're constantly reading summary, not story.

Here's the other problem: The first 100 pages are a LOT about literary theory and semiotics, which not only adds to the "book report" feel, but also makes the beginning of the novel feel like a freshman weed-out class — it's tough to get through, but once you do, you're supposed to be treated to the "good part." But what happens here is that high expectations for this novel (based on how awesome Middlesex was) are almost immediately dampened. And unfortunately, the novel never fully recovers.

So the rest of the story is about Madeleine and Leonard's troubled life together, and Mitchell's travels throughout Europe, during which time his college crush, Madeleine, is never far from his mind. But is Mitchell really in love with Madeleine, or is he in love with the idea of being in love with Madeleine?

Look, I'm more surprised than anyone I didn't like this novel. I'm willing to allow that certain readers who have more of an appreciation for 19th century literature (Madeleine considers herself a "Victorianist" and loves novels by writers like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters) may decode some allusions in this novel that I missed, and therefore like it much more. And furthermore, parts of the novel are amazingly lucid and insightful. Other than the first 100 pages, this is a really smooth, easy-to-read book.

But sadly, Eugenides fluid prose can't save many other snooze-inducing episodes — eg., as we learn about Leonard's family history and while Mitchell is working in India. So I'm giving this 3 out of 5 stars.


  1. For some reason the things I've read about this book make me compare it to Freedom which is why I'm afrai to read this. The only difference being that I loved Middlesex and have not read any other Franzen's.

  2. I really like what you said about the first 100 pages being a kind of freshman weed-out class. That's an interesting idea that hadn't occurred to me.

    Mitchell in India (and really, Mitchell in general) was my favorite part of the novel. It's about building up our expectations of ourselves, expectations of our good intentions while in a university setting and then seeing those expectations shatter in when faced with real life. For Mitchell it happens in a variety of different ways - with Larry, India, Madeleine.

    I dunno, the more I thought about The Marriage Plot and carried it around in my head, the more I found to love about it.

  3. This is unfortunate. I've got this, but I don't know now if I'll be reading it. The sophomore slump apparently hits hard.

  4. @Jenny - Well, I actually loved Freedom, but I know what you mean about the high expectations.

    @brooks - You're right - a lot of the novel is about ideals or ideologies vs. practical or the real world. Mitchell was surprised when he realized he couldn't handle India - or what India required of him, which was interesting. But that section just fell flat for me, 'cause it seemed obvious. I finished the book on Friday, and I'm kind of hoping the same thing will happen for me as happened for you - the more I think about it, the more it'll grow on me. But, sadly, the opposite has happened so far.

    @Home - The Marriage Plot is actually Eugenides' third novel - so, the Junior slump? Yes. ;)

  5. Awe man I'm sorry you didn't like this one Greg. I'll agree that there were certainly slow going sections of the book, but I thought overall it was worth the read. What did you think of the ending?

  6. Uh oh. I suggested this one for an upcoming bookclub. I hope my reading of it goes a little smoother!

  7. I like your comparison to the freshman weed-out class, too. After reading your review, though, all I really want to do is reread Middlesex...I'll get to The Marriage Plot eventually (heck, I'm going home for the holidays in the week - how much you want to bet that I check it out of the library?), but I'm not in love with the book reporty-feel that you mention. When there's too much of that "brief moment in the present - 50 pages detailing the lead-up to that moment" the narrative loses some of its urgency for me. The ten-year-old reader inside of me just wants to say, "But you already told us where this all ends!"

  8. I didn't love the first 100 pages. I felt like it was flaunting its literariness in a way that was a little annoying. But, like brooks, I loved the parts about Mitchell and the time he spent in India. That redeemed the book for me.

  9. @Brenna - As I wrote this, I kept thinking, "Oh man, Brenna's gonna be pissed." ;)

    @Amused - I hope so, too! There are ton of readers who really loved this book - so perhaps it's one that just fell flat for me.

    @Ellen - Yeah, Middlesex is so awesome - one of my favorites of all time. And good point about the narrative losing its urgency - that exactly how it felt.

    @IngridLola - I'm not sure why I couldn't find my way into those India parts - maybe was reading when I was too tired or something. But those parts tilted me away from the book instead of redeeming it for me.

  10. Hm, was planning on reading this once finals were over, not sure if I need any more literary theory... maybe I'll just read Middlesex instead. All of the reviews I've read either wrote about how great Middlesex was or talked about Eugenides' time as a semiotics major.

  11. I'm really torn on this - I loved Middlesex, and liked The Virgin Suicides, but I've heard really mixed things on this one. But then again, maybe mixed things is what makes it interesting - certainly provides fodder for extensive conversation, at the very least!