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!


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