Friday, December 28, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides Book Review

I want this to be a candid response. I finished this book on 12/13/12 and started this post’s draft immediately after:

I liked this book. I disliked this book. It’s a love-hate thing. 

Because I don’t feel like Eugenides earned the right for his book to be properly analyzed, I’m not going to invest MORE TIME in summarizing it. I want to move on with my life…And my refusal to break it down should tell you something about this book.

Before I started reading, I looked up what this book was about. I found this NYT article that reviewed it, so I would know what I was getting into. And, I have to say, the article is pretty spot-on. After reading it, it sums up my feelings nicely.

But, let’s put my personal opinions about the story in here, shall we?

The first part is (pretty much) all about their graduation from Brown. I have no real graduation experience of my own (I refused to walk), so I found the scenes and character interactions about graduation foreign – not only because I find such rituals ridiculous, but because it was about a graduation from an elitist school.

The fact that they were students going to Brown made me automatically hate them. I judged them from the start. See, if you’re going to write a story about privileged kids you have to make them relatable to even the ‘lower’ classes. The three main characters were already at a disadvantage (to my good side). None of them deserved what they had. None of them.

But I know that's the wrong way to approach people/characters, so I adjusted my opinion accordingly. 

However, that still didn't help things. 

I didn’t care – didn’t give a damn – about these characters. When bad things happened to them, I. Did. Not. Care.

I had no attachment to them. Maybe that’s what Eugenides wanted. Maybe not. The fact I can’t tell what he wanted makes their existence as characters seem pointless. If I can’t formulate opinions about them based on how the author presents them, then I don’t even care. Even if they were supposed to be little a-holes that I could officially hate, then fine. At least let me be able to officially feel something about them.

The three main characters can be summed up as this:

Mitchell, the religious studies major, has a God complex (he wants to control Madeleine).

Leonard, the double major, is too smart for his own good (and his genius never amounts to anything).

Madeleine is… Even though most of the story is from her POV she’s virtually an empty character. Which may or may not have been the point.

The shifts in POV really pissed me off. I felt like J.E. shifted between them because one character’s POV (or even an omnipresent narrator for that matter) couldn’t have carried the story along. The story uses shifts (of POV, etc.) to make you forget there is no plot – to distract you.

I complained about the lack of plot to Hel early on in my reading. She said that it’s because it’s a coming of age story. Which is true. But I think Literary Fiction gets a bad rap because of books like this. I mean, take Perks of Being a Wallflower for example (right off the top of my head). That’s a coming of age story regarded as literary (in some circles. Okay, mine). And it has a plot (why is Charlie so f--ked up? SPOILERS: because his beloved aunt molested him). A good plot has twists. This book, The Marriage Plot, has no twists. It did not awe me. It did not entertain me.

Instead, it tried to cram theological, philosophical, and literary discussions down my throat. Granted, it attempted to cleverly disguise these preachings (that always read as some Socratic method poorly inserted into the story) as plot.

These ‘inserted’ didactic moments wouldn’t be so bad if Eugenides had earned the right to teach me. If he had dooped me with a plot twist or with blowing my mind then yes. Yes, I’d be willing to be instructed. His awing me would have meant I’m the stupid one – that I still had something to learn. But that didn't happen. 

...If I’m going to take the time to listen to you, Eugenides, you need to make sure you’re worth hearing. Did you think that you could ride on your own coattails because of the Virgin Suicides? Middlesex? Well guess what, I’ve not even seen so much as your film adaptation, so it’s not working for you.

*End rant*

TMP is not an important book, though it is a good book. To a point, I needed this book. I recently graduated with my BA and this book brought back a lot of old experiences. It also helped validate the ones I’m going through now. But, the thing is, there are probably better books out there to help you/me during this time in your/my life. There has to be. Granted, I can’t think of any. But this shouldn’t have been THAT book.

Now, I could delve into the irony of ‘the marriage plot’ within The Marriage Plot, but I won’t. I can’t. It’s self-explanatory. It explains itself over and over and over when in reality you can just read this paragraph and get the picture. The irony-slash-brilliance speaks for itself. J.E. thinks he’s clever. Maybe he is. But not clever enough this time.

…What else is there to say? Hm. 

Madeleine is an English major. She likes Victorian Lit but then starts to doubt its modern "goodness" when she experiments with other literature/philosophies. Which is fine. It’s good to doubt what you like. It forces you to make sure you like what you like for the right reasons. And of course Madeleine later realizes how she can still like Victorian lit – it wasn’t so ‘silly’ and ‘overdone’ after all – maybe she shouldn’t have let herself be spoon-fed at Brown (duh).

Madeleine’s character is reduced to a concept – “Victorianism” or whatever. Her entirety relies on what she’s studying at the time. She’s a blank slate compared to the boy characters.

The boy characters suffer from being manifestations of what they’re “studying” too, but I couldn’t help but get the impression that Eugenides made them said “manifestations” without being aware of it. I make this assumption only because… If he had realized it, he would have made the book much shorter – maybe a novella. His moral-of-the-story would have been much sharper and poignant if he had cut to the chase. He drags it out as if the book is going somewhere but he completely misses his own point. He tries to hit the target, but he never really shot an arrow. 

J.E. ties his story up with a bow. He put a lot of thought into the present as well. But it's one of those presents you feel obligated/pressured to accept and pretend to like. 

…All complaints aside, this book was certainly the most thought-provoking and intellectual of what we’ve read so far. lol


Thanks, Panda, for saying everything that could possibly be said about the novel. haha. Kidding, of course. I think we really had very similar views on the novel, aside from a few key issues, and since Panda did such a great job flushing out meat and bones of the novel, I will mainly spend my time addressing the points where we disagree.

For starters, the marriage plot itself. Panda didn't get into what it means for the characters, but telling would be a big plot spoiler, so I approve. The important thing to know is that we disagree. We disagree about how the marriage plot applies to characters. I think this is a  really big deal. You would think the finale would be straight forward. The book wasn't a mystery, or some weird abstract movie that you can't really follow where at the end you are left asking, "What just happened?". The fact that we disagree makes the plot even harder to pin point. I would say two people being able to take away two completely things from a novel is good. It makes it versatile  But I am not sure that is what's happening in this case.

Another thing that I have to disagree with is the POV shift. I love when stories are told from different angles. Maybe because I always want to know what is motivating someone else, what really happened from their point of view. I think Leonard would not be a likeable character without seeing the story from his point of view. He would just be the crazy guy that treats his girlfriend like crap. But that's not really all there is to him.

I do whole heartedly agree that Med's character is a waste of paper. There is nothing to her. I don't think the same is true for the boys, but that doesn't mean I like them. Leonard is not defined by what he is studying. He is a science major, so he works in the field, yes, but there are things that loom larger than that - his issues with his parents, his disease, his obsession with Mad. Mitchell, on the other hand..... the more I think about him, the more I hate him. Perhaps because I had such high expectations of him. He's a religious studies major, but he's not really a religious person. It's more like God, or whatever might be out there, has this fascination for him. He does undergo a transformation throughout the book, but it is not well executed. I expected the highlight of the novel to be the trip Mitchel takes to Europe/India post graduation. But nothing that really related to the rest of the novel and it's "plot" REALLY happens there. Yes, Mitchell evolves as a character, but it doesn't matter because it doesn't effect Mad or the marriage plot in any significant way. His segment was a waste of space and a disappointment. But, if it has been left out, the book really WOULD be a novella.

In agreement with Panda, I have to say - I hated all the English major talk. It made it very difficult for me to get through, because it wasn't presented in a way that non-English majors could follow. It made the book seem elitist to me (and boring). In contrast, I did like the science portions. Eugenides actually seemed to know what he was talking about, without the Hollywood spin on it that generally makes science portions of books and TV/Movies unbelievable.

In general, I admire Eugenides's writing style. It works well for his genre, whatever that may be. But, I would not call it "A great romance in the Austen tradition" as the USA Today did. Bah!


Saturday, December 1, 2012


Okay, I know this “November” post is technically in December, but we *did* finish the book in November, so I don’t feel too bad about it being one day late (really, it’s my fault it was so late. Hel made a draft a long time ago but I’m just now getting around to finishing mine – so sorry!). But to the reviews! – Panda  

My brain is mush lately, so I am writing this in a sort of dazed, out of body state. Be warned.

I really liked this book, in general. I would really like to know the original fairy tale it was based on (called Donkeyskin), to see what the differences were. I kept wondering how much of the story has changed. I think that hindered my enjoyment of the book somewhat.

Though there were many things I liked, a few major things really bugged me. For one, at times the writing was really dense. A big glob of run on’s. This was mostly the case whenever the author wanted to create a dream-like scenario, described Lissar’s (aka Deerskin’s) depression, or other emotive situations. You could definitely tell that it was an adaptation from a fairy tale, because it had the aura of one. It made the whole thing somewhat annoying.

Another big issue I had with it was the length of the story, mainly because of the fact that it was written like a fairy tale. It’s not a long book, but it felt endless. The story seemed to go on and on, even though not all that much happened. It’s difficult to explain without giving too much away, but let me just say that there were large leaps and changes, filled in with the endless run on’s. It kind of felt like a Lord of the Rings marathon.
        That being said, the positives outweighed the negatives for me. The writing was beautiful, even if I did have to skip some parts. The excitement and wanting to know what was going to happen next even kept me away from Facebook and awake late into the night, reading. This doesn’t often happen to me anymore, because sleep is so rare and valuable with a baby. The book/story line was very versatile, offering violence, romance, and everything in between. The two main characters were big dog lovers, and I really liked that. It made me want a nice, sane, clean, soft, loyal dog for my son that he could grow up with and have such a strong bond with (I have issues with our dog, if you couldn’t tell).

McKinley did a great job of developing the characters, in my opinion. When we first meet Princess Lissar, she is shy, meek and naïve. At the end of the book, she is self-reliant, strong, and independent almost to a fault. Though they are first introduced as – seemingly – heroes, and their country loves them, the King and Queen are both surprisingly awful people, at least in relation to their daughter. .  

I’m still unsure about one point: the ending. I can’t tell if I liked it or not. It did leave me wanting for me, because it wasn’t a happy or a sad ending. Perhaps that is fitting for Lissar. Since the book is about her evolution from timid Princess, to shattered person, to strong, independent, goddess-like woman it would make sense that she cannot hand her fate over to a man. However, I did expect more from a fairy tale. Perhaps Disney has ruined things for us.

Overall, I give this book an 8.5 out of 10 and would definitely recommend it.


I would recommend this book to practically everyone.  

BUT, because I would recommend it, that’s part of my problem with it. (Not trying to sound like a hipster here, but) Deerskin didn’t hit me very personally, and so that’s why I’d be willing to share it with others.

If I had to give this book a grade, it would be a B+. I want to give it an A-, but I think that maybe if it weren’t based off of a fairy tale (someone else’s story) I would be more inclined to give it a higher grade.

Now, to break it down: The Author’s Note tells you what you need to know before reading. I looked up Donkeyskin (which I had never heard of before until this book) on Wikipedia before starting. I still don’t feel like I know enough about Donkeyskin to properly compare it to Deerskin, but I’m excited to find out more (I’ll be keeping my eyes open for this story from now on. Or, if you know more about it, feel free to comment on this post and educate me, son!).

In a time where fairy tales are taking over our mainstream (think of the new Beauty and the Beast and Once Upon a Time TV shows), it’s nice to see a book written that doesn’t focus on an over-done fairy tale.

Now, the book is split into three parts, so I’ll go over each one:

Part one: Now, this book was copyrighted in 1993, so I let a lot of today’s clichés slide. From the onset, you know this is an “adult” book. It’s not your child’s fairy tale. Lissar is the main character. She’s a princess. Lissar’s parents’ relationship made me want to throw up, because they (the king and queen) were so obsessed with each other. They are pure manifestations of vanity, as far as I can tell. As the Queen lay dying, she has a portrait painted of her for the king to always remember her by. The part about the painter goes on and on and on. But every time you get frustrated, Robin McKinley draws you back in with a new concept of her world to read about. Every side character is treated fairly. Even the painter has a personality that adds to the imagery. This whole story is imagery. There is hardly any dialogue (which usually would upset me). Sometimes you even forget about Lissar because of the fanciful world before you – just as her parents and her kingdom did. The kingdom described is so beautiful – a representation of sins, perhaps. The kingdom is so fragile that when the queen dies, it never recovers – because beauty is shallow.

Much of the writing style reminded me of Ursula K. LeGuin’s – but more delicate and feminine. I certainly liked this story more than most of Ursula’s stories (no offense, gurl, you a ground-breaker).

As I said before, Lissar (though our protagonist) is overlooked through most of part one – until she is given a dog from a prince in another land. The puppy’s name is Ash and Lissar starts to have feelings and take on purpose. Even her ‘friends’ have to use the dog to interact with Lissar.

Now, at this point, the “fairy tale” struck me as odd because in most fairy tales the father is the good guy and the mother (or step-mother) is normally evil. But it is clear that while Lissar’s mother most represented vanity, her father represented lust. When he announces he will marry his own daughter, the kingdom blames Lissar – not the mad king for this horrific statement. This is much like in our own culture when a girl is raped and someone says “what was she wearing?” People pin the blame on the female who could have “avoided” such a terrible situation.

When Ash threatens the king in order to protect Lissar, the king declares Ash will have to die. This was when I started to find things melodramatic. When the king finally rapes Lissar (as this was obviously going to happen – the buildup was obvious), I almost lost interest in the book. This part felt like it was out of character for the king – especially since Lissar is hurt so badly afterwards. Yes, I know Ash attacks him at one point and this makes him angrier but… I’m not even sure he would bother to rape her. Yes, he was obsessed with her, but the rape scene seemed weak and only served the purpose of creating a reason for Lissar to run away. He could have merely tried to rape her but Lissar could have gotten away. The fact the king wanted to marry her would have been reason enough to run away. However, maybe this has something to do with the Donkeyskin fairy tale that I just don’t know about.

Part two: When the king hurt Ash to get to Lissar, I thought Ash was dead. For sure. But she’s not. (Robin does this a lot with the animals in this story – you think something bad is going to happen to them, but it never really does).

However, where part one was weak, it gets better. Way better. Of course, you have to suffer the after effects of the rape (it is very drawn out). Lissar finds a vacant cabin and lives there for a time. They hunt, but not with bows and arrows. Ash attacks vermin and Lissar kills things with stones. I really liked this point about the hunting. Arrows are so cliché (thanks to The Hunger Games and Legolas) – and her hunting technique made Lissar seem so much more animalistic herself.

Magical elements like dragons are gently tossed into the story to remind you this is a fairy tale. Some scenes in part 2 I really felt like skimming, but the plot was starting to develop so I kept at it.  

Lissar meets Lilac – a girl who talks a lot and works with horses (even though she’s the daughter of someone rich-ish and doesn’t need to work or something like that).

Lissar, in this part, finally calls herself Deerskin. At this point we’re supposed to figure out that she’s suppressed her memory of her former self, but that point is not as obvious as I would have liked – maybe because it was based on the foundation of the rape scene (which I thought was weak).

She makes her way to the yellow city – the kingdom of the prince who gave her Ash (though she does not remember this). And now she has white hair and has gone through a (long story short) physical and spiritual transformation. The prince, Ossin, gives her a job taking care of puppies whose mother died the night before.

Now, Ossin (obviously) becomes the love interest. It is a love story done gently and I felt it made up for other parts that lacked strength in the beginning (like the rape scene). The villagers start to call her Moonwoman – after a folk legend they have.

The fairy tale/story becomes very meta when it talks about other fairy tales and such – which I liked.

When the prince takes Lissar in the portrait room and shows her the portrait of herself (that he had been sent), he is still too stupid (and so is she) to put things together. Ash is in the portrait also, and he even remembers what he named Ash. Granted, I can forgive it because Lissar looks so different (she didn’t always have white hair) and I also think that Ash’s coat grew curly at one point, which none of his other dogs had done.

When Ossin asks her to (eventually) marry him, she refuses. This part seemed silly to me and drew the story out for too long. She runs away with her dogs back to the cabin. At one point Ash gets hurt when the dogs try to take down a…I’m not even sure what it was, but it had horns. You think that Ash is going to die this time, but she never does. In fact (spoilers) no one ever dies. This is part of my beef with the story. It was too happy-ever-after.

Part three: Robin McKinley tries to give the story a twist when Lissar makes her way back to civilization and finds out there is a wedding going on. She thinks it is Ossin’s wedding (but even I knew it wasn’t – it just didn’t feel right). It’s her father about to marry Ossin’s sister. This seems out of character for himself also. He was so obsessed with Lissar that he was willing to marry her, but now he’s willing to betray his old wife’s wishes entirely (that he not marry anyone else unless she’s as beautiful as she was). Granted, yes, he does need an heir now, because everyone thinks Lissar is dead. But I feel like this point could have been drawn out more and the rape after-math scenes could have been cut from the story. The ending was wrapped up too quickly – Lissar exposes her father and she agrees to stay with Ossin (for as long as she feels like it). End of story.

Some final thoughts/points:

I really liked how this fairy tale broke binaries. Lissar didn’t need Ossin. They simply wanted each other. He did not complete her. The climax describes Lissar as both black and white – she needed no Yin to her Yang (or whatever).* It’s a very feminist piece of literature.

I did not like how – sometimes – the prince and Lissar thought/talked about breeding puppies. Yes, their dogs are good dogs with good personalities, but a lot of it is training too. I think this could give dumber readers the idea that breeding is best. Mutts for the win!!! (However, I really loved Ash. I love big dogs. And the way Robin describes Ash makes her the main character, really, in my opinion. Robin captures dogs so splendidly – it made me miss my own childhood dog so much that I found myself crying).

*This is a Taoist twist, in my opinion. This point made Robin’s themes seem much like LeGuins’s – as well as the oral tradition concepts woven into the story (such as when Lissar names the puppies and the names are, to her, a charm to help them live – live long enough to claim their names). These points and more reminded me extremely of Ursula K. LeGuin – but I liked how Robin was not as didactic as Ursula can be on these ideas. Though, Ursula was the first to incorporate them into sf.

The next book we're reading (for Decemeber) is The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides.   Read along with us!   
-Amanda Panda