This week I’ve been reading… The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Brown University, 1982. Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English student and incurable romantic, is writing her thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot – authors of the great marriage plots. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different men, intervenes.

Leonard Bankhead, brilliant scientist and charismatic longer, attracts Madeleine with an intensity that she seems powerless to resist. Meanwhile her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus, a theology student searching for some kind of truth in life, is certain of at least one thing – that he and Madeleine are destined to be together.

But as all three leave college, they will have to figure out how they want their own marriage plot to end.

I’ve been trying to avoid using other people’s blurbs in my reviews in favour of writing my own but I wanted to quote the one from the back of my copy of this book as it is startlingly inaccurate. For one thing it completely over plays the prominence of Jane Austen and George Eliot in the story, which had been the main attraction for me. And more importantly it makes it sound like the book is entirely about the character of Madeline, when in fact the narrative overall is split pretty evenly between Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell.

But based on this blurb and my impressions from the first 20 pages I was not optimistic. Jeffrey Eugenides is a Pulitzer Prize winning author who has covered topics such as teen suicide, religious fanaticism and hermaphroditism and he’s wasting his talent on chick-lit? The thought of another 400 pages dedicated to the romantic dramas of this clichéd, attractive, rich female, who could have been lifted straight out of the worst kinds of YA fiction, almost had me throwing the towel in – if I wasn’t two books behind on my GoodReads target with five books already abandoned partway through.

So I preserved, but thinking a lot less of Jeffrey Eugenides than I had when I started.

My main problem with Madeleine’s character was she was one dimensional. At best. At worst she seemed almost offensive to women. A particular low point was when she no longer cares if she orgasms during sex because ‘her hunger for Leonard was in some way satisfied by his satisfaction.’ That’s not a thing, that’s just male wishful thinking.

Being able to write from the point of view of the opposite sex is an amazing skill for a writer to have. Ian McEwan has mastered it; Thomas Hardy, Colm Toibin, George RR Martin as well. And if you agree with the reviews of The Marriage Plot then Jeffrey Eugenides should be joining this list. But in my opinion he needs a lot more work.

With all these negative conclusions lodged in my brain it took me completely by surprise when I started to get really into it. Almost without me noticing. One day I’m moaning to my dad what a let-down it’s been, the next I’m putting off catching up on the new series of Gotham so I can read another chapter.

A lot of this change of attitude can be attributed to the narrative moving away from Madeleine to focus more on Mitchell and Leonard. We’re already on more solid Jeffrey Eugenides ground with Mitchell’s Greek heritage but he was a curious character altogether. A sort of Pierre Bezukov in a modern world; on a journey of self-discovery, in love with a girl in can’t have and fixated by religion without actually being very religious. Although the Tolstoy-esque theological musings took the comparison too far and I found my eyes skimming the words while my brain thought about something else entirely. Mitchell spends most of the book travelling around Europe and India, pondering religion and pining for Madeline. And why I found reading about someone moping after Madeleine so much more tolerable than reading about Madeleine I don’t know, but I certainly did.

The second, Leonard, is a manic depressive biologist. Which only added to what was already an interesting character as in all the books I’ve read that feature a character suffering from depression I don’t think a single one has been male. His narrative is more retrospective; looking back at his upbringing and the events leading up to his break-down. And my knowledge of manic depression is limited to say the least but it seemed like a sensitive and honest depiction.

I’m not sure if I’m recommending this book or not. It’s certainly not Jeffery Eugenides at his finest. The originality of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex are almost entirely lacking here. And looking back on it it’s astonishing to think that a book about topics so completely different to anything I’ve encountered in my life, featuring characters almost entirely unrelatable to me could be so involving. And yet it was.

It all comes down to the way Jeffrey Eugenides writes. Because no matter what the story, eventually the style will get me hooked every time. After all, what other writer could get you interested in a passage dedicated to the properties of yeast?


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