Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot

Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is a good college novel. It’s a good novel about a few kids their first year out of school, and it’s a good novel about relationships and about, duh, “the marriage plot.” But it’s a novel that suffers for what we might expect it to be; however good Eugenides’s latest may be, it doesn’t, it can’t, approach the quality of Middlesex. Unfair as it may be to compare the novels, it’s impossible to read The Marriage Plot (just as it’s impossible to read The Virgin Suicides) without Eugenides’s best novel in mind.

The Marriage Plot opens on graduation day for Madeleine, an English major who wrote her senior thesis on the marriage plot. Though Madeleine may first appear in the novel a hungover disaster, it’s soon clear that her life, and the life of this novel, is going to follow the same topic as her senior thesis. Which of her two (unsuitable) suitors is she going to end up with? What does a contemporary novel, taking marriage as its theme, look like? Her two suitors, Mitchell and Leonard, appear on the periphery of her life when the novel opens, but it’s evident that Madeleine is going to go for one of the two. Mitchell, a friend who’s been in love with Madeleine for years, appears about as well suited to her as her (momentarily) ex-boyfriend, the unstable, recovering Lothario, Leonard.

The biggest problem with Eugindes’s novel isn’t that it pales in comparison to Middlesex, but that Madeleine as a character appears a shadow compared to Leonard and Mitchell. Mitchell is by far the most sympathetic and best developed character of the novel, and it’s his post-graudation year-long “journey of self-discovery” that forms the most enjoyable part of the novel. And unlike Madeleine and Leonard, Mitchell seems most out-of-place at Brown University, the most in awe of this world of assumed success (not to mention expensive clothes and ice cream). Visiting a friend’s home for the first time, Mitchell is overwhelmed by the offerings of their kitchen; in some way, Mitchell feels like our guide to this world, the one member of Eugenides’s group of characters who doesn’t quite belong in Madeleine’s circle.

He still remembered the thrill of it: coming down to the kitchen one morning, the majestic Hudson visible in the window, and opening the freezer to see the small round tub of exotically named ice cream. Not a greedy half gallon, as they had at Mitchell’s house in Michigan, not cheap ice milk, not vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry but a flavor he had never dreamed of before, with a name as lyrical as the Berryman poems he was reading for his American poetry class: rum raisin. Ice cream that was also a drink! In a precious pint-size container. Six of these lined up next to six bags of dark French roast Zabar’s coffee. What was Zabar’s? How did you get there? What was lox? Why was it orange? Did the Pleshettes really eat fish for breakfast? Who was Diaghilev? What was a gouache, a pentimento, a rugelach? Please tell me, Mitchell’s face silently pleaded throughout his visits. He was in New York, the greatest city in the world. He wanted to learn everything, and Larry was the guy who could teach him. (133)

Leonard doesn’t quite fit into Madeleine’s upper-crust world either, but there’s a sense that he could, if not for his mental illness. Eugenides does an extraordinary job following Leonard over the course of the novel, his collapses and recoveries, his attempts to self-medicate and how his illness influences his feelings for Madeleine. Though Leonard is presented, from Mitchell’s view, as a womanizing asshole who doesn’t deserve Madeleine, he emerges later in the novel as a profoundly decent person who may not deserve Madeleine but recognizes his failure to be what he should be.

Madeleine, though, remains an enigma. We see her largely through the eyes of her two suitors, and when a section of the novel is told from her point of view, it’s not about her life as much as it is about her life with Leonard, or her lack of a life with Mitchell. Although Mitchell’s college memories of Madeleine are of someone determined not to marry, to find some independent course for her life, her actions point to a desire to define herself through her relationships. Madeleine may stay with Leonard during his bouts of illness, but she’s with him as much for duty as for love; it is, she seems to believe, what she is meant to do. That Eugenides based his entire novel around a character who only exists through the eyes of others is troubling, and points to some failure in the attempt to breathe new life into the marriage plot. He may take the plot on a different course at novel’s end, but The Marriage Plot remains a novel that views Madeleine as existing mostly for the benefit of the men surrounding her. And when Madeleine, at novel’s end, begins to take some more independent path – we think, we hope – it’s not because she realized the need to find her own way, but because Leonard and Mitchell each, independently, realized that Madeleine deserved to be on her own.

The Marriage Plot captures elements of the college experience, of intellectualizing our lives, of attempting to find ourselves through work and travel and relationships, more clearly and exactly than any other novel in recent memory. Where Eugenides fails is in having a main character who is nothing more than a canvas for men to project themselves onto. Madeleine exists not as a person in her own right, but as someone who offers to others a chance to better themselves, a chance for redemption. Eugenides may suggest that Madeleine’s bout with the marriage plot has led her to some understanding of the need for self-development and -discovery (following Mitchell’s path, in spirit if not in manner), but that remains only a suggestion, overshadowed by 400 pages of Madeleine living for everyone but herself.

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10 Comments

I think you’re right, but I really didn’t have too much trouble with Madeleine as a character. She’s definitely the most shallow of the three, someone who almost any girl can imagine herself as. Still, I found her experience true because during that time of life many girls DO define themselves by their relationships, and it’s only through heartbreak or whatever that they end up on their own, figuring out who they are. This very thing happened to me.

I also had no problem with comparing this one to Eugenides’ other novels. Actually, I prefer The Virgin Suicides to Middlesex anyway, even though I loved them both. The writing in The Marriage Plot is superb as in both of the others, and I really appreciated it for what it is.

Comment by Kathleen

That’s a fantastic point about why Madeleine’s character is so shallow. Jennifer mentioned something similar in her comment below. I still can’t say I loved Madeleine’s character or the way Eugenides presented her, but I see your point that that is what many girls are like at that point in their lives.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I’m not sure that the problem with The Marriage Plot is only that it’s not as good as Middlesex. While that’s certainly true, I thought TMP had more than a few problems all on its own – namely, a lot of it is just eye-crossingly dull.

And I’ll preface the next issue as I always due with this disclaimer: I don’t need likable characters to like a novel. But. Madeleine. She the worst! She only sees herself as others see her and when others vision of her is so flawed, of course her vision of herself will be too. That’s all fine and good, but it doesn’t make for interesting reading. And I practically slept read through the parts where Mitchell was in India – but they have just been personal preference.

So, I wasn’t a fan. :)

Comment by Greg Zimmerman

Right?! It drives me nuts when people mention needing “likeable” characters; all I really want is a character who’s interesting and believable. But Madeleine…like you say, she just doesn’t make for the best reading, even if she is a pretty accurate picture of what a 22-year-old girl looks like.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I haven’t read this yet, though I really want to, but I can’t help but (generously) wonder if Eugenides’ point is that too many women still tend to reflect what they think men want them to be, and that is why Madeleine is presented as such. That’s what occurred to me as I read your review, though I have no actual basis for that. I’ll have to see what I think when I finally am able to read it…

Comment by Jennifer Maurer

When I read Kathleen’s comment, about how Madeleine’s experience and sense of self is actually a pretty accurate reflection of how many girls at that age view themselves, I started to wonder about that as well. I almost wish I had liked the book more so I could reread it with this in mind. As you say, too many women still are trying to reflect what they think men want of them, which goes far to explain Madeleine’s behavior. And maybe the frustration I felt with Madeleine and the whole world Eugenides had created was exactly what I should have been feeling, what Eugenides was going for. Looking forward to hearing what you think of the novel, when you have time to read it.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Wow, I missed Kathleen’s comment but nice to know that I’m not necessarily completely off-point!

Comment by Jennifer Maurer

I badly want to read ‘Middlesex’. I badly, but slightly *less* badly, want to read ‘The Virgin Suicides’. I had no such compulsions about ‘The Marriage Plot’ when it was released, and investigations into its quality (which sounds incredibly trite without having read the book, I know) give me no cheerful pause to the contrary. I feel, maybe a bit dramatically, like I have been waiting to read ‘Middlesex’ my entire emotional adult life, so perhaps 2012 will be the year for that.

I believe it’s possible for a book to function well, even when its plot is mired in the movements of a character who’s seen through the eyes of others, but it sounds like there’s a shopping list of other issues with this novel too, which make that narrative perspective shakier, less well-articulated than it could potentially be. I think, actually, I’ll read ‘The Marriage Plot’ before ‘Middlesex’…a case, as it were, of moving upwards in quality, rather than downhill.

Comment by Shivanee @ Novel Niche

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