Reviews

Wanting it Bad: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

By posted at 6:00 am on October 19, 2011 4

I read Middlesex in 2002 as a college sophomore.  I read it again in 2004, and probably two or three times after that. In early 2007, I went into a bookstore and, looking helplessly at the stacks of new releases, asked when there was going to be another one from Jeffrey Eugenides. It was the first time in my life I felt impatient for a book I wasn’t sure had been written or was going to be.

Unlike childhood and adolescence, which are a sustained exercise in waiting — you count the hours till your TV show, the days till your sleepover, the years till you turn eleven — the adult self has a different relationship with anticipation. If you are not The Marriage Plot’s Leonard, for whom there is no baseline of normalcy, if you are not in flux and falling in love or out of love or into some tragedy, the pangs of anticipation lose their childhood acuity and become muddled with complexities. So it is a rare pleasure to wait for something with that pure and uncomplicated eagerness. I carried this book around in my bag all day, waiting for the moment to open it. I went to a meeting and as I half-listened I moved my hands over the smooth pages with near-erotic pleasure. Perhaps I was just channeling a zeitgeisty fetishization of the endangered physical book. But I think it is more the relief born of nine years of waiting. “Waiting is an enchantment,” writes Roland Barthes in The Lover’s Discourse, to which Eugenides’s heroine Madeleine transfers all of her anxieties about her aloof lover Leonard; “The Festivity is what is waited for.”

covercoverI waited for this book, Madeleine waits for Leonard, Leonard waits for his side effects to dissipate, Mitchell waits for Madeleine, and also for a variety of religious experience. Madeleine is pretty, and smart, and rich, and “slightly anxious.” Leonard is maybe smarter, definitely poorer, and worse, sick. The hangover of Madeleine and Leonard’s great Festivity is the grim reality of Leonard’s mental illness. Madeleine is with Leonard through his illness, ostensibly because she loves him, also because she didn’t get into grad school and she’s not sure what to do. Eugenides describes with convincing and heartrending detail a Leonard in thrall to his lithium, a prisoner whose act of liberation is the heroic and misguided recalibration of his meds leading to a spectacular crack-up. Meanwhile, Mitchell travels through Europe and India pining for Madeleine and the Lord.

In some respects, Madeleine is a surface upon which people project their respective wills. Everyone knows that Madeleine is bookish, but we only hear her discussing her actual books of interest with other young women at a conference. We don’t know why Mitchell and Leonard love her exactly, except that she is beautiful, with clean sheets, full of (mostly unspoken) bookish thoughts. Mitchell spends years mesmerized by the memory of a glimpse of her “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast.”

Eugenides is kinder to Madeleine than I, out of envy, might be inclined. The year I read Middlesex was the year my boyfriend, a student at Brown University, broke up with me. During my weekend visits, Brown seemed to teem with beautiful women who exuded the possibility of “clean-sheet Wednesday,” and who didn’t bouy the spirit with intimations of their stupidity. This book could have been an act of vengeance on girls who are pretty and thin and rich and go to good schools and read novels and have sex, but not too much sex or too soon. But even I don’t hate Madeleine. Leonard is most blameless and deserving of sympathy in the novel — his illness is a real and perpetual problem, a horse on his chest. And yet I guiltily celebrated when Madeleine met her intellectual compatriots for a few short days at the conference, or when she kissed Mitchell on a French leave to New York.

The novel invites us to like Madeleine; the novel, like Mitchell, loves Madeleine in spite of her being, and probably because she is, a “Fortnum & Mason’s drinker, her favorite blend Earl Grey. She didn’t just dump a bag in a cup, either, but brewed loose leaves, using a strainer and a tea cozy.” Mitchell describes his problem of being subsumed in the Godhead thus: “it was hard to kill your self off when you liked so many things about it.” We might say the same thing about Madeleine. The liberally-distributed acidity and self-loathing of Jonathan Franzen – and I cannot fail to compare the two after reading Evan Hughes’s illuminating piece on the fraternity of contemporary heavy-hitters — is a contrast to the more benign treatment found here. (Of the primary characters, that is. The supporting cast — Larry, Claire, Thurston, Abby — are intensely unlikable).

The Marriage Plot is a nod to the humanity of sexy women who feel like lumpen embarrassments around the right kind of man. It’s a nod only, though; we hear about Madeleine’s bowel movements through their absence, revealed by the interrogation of Leonard. We do not see her sneak off to to take an anxious crap, the way we do Leonard. Madeleine’s WASP mystique largely endures.

coverThat Madeleine is a WASP is put forth ad nauseam. When Madeleine takes Mitchell home for a fateful Thanksgiving, she brings volume 1 of A Dance to the Music of Time, which, like The Marriage Plot, is a both a witty society novel and a work whose great depth belies its light touch. Like a Powell character, Madeleine lives in rarefied air, with rarefied people like Pookie Ames surfacing here and there at Brown and in New York. Unlike in a Powell novel, the class markers occasionally jangle. Madeleine’s father, Alton, begins a graduation weekend hotel strategy session with “When your cousin graduated from Williams…” Alton’s “voice was surprisingly good; he’d been in an a capella singing group at Yale.” Madeleine comes to Mitchell’s guest room “dressed in a Lawrenceville T-shirt and nothing else.” Perhaps these last two are Mitchell’s Detroiter observations more than the novel’s, but they sometimes grate.

I can’t know anything about the author’s process, but The Marriage Plot must have been daunting to visualize and see through after Middlesex, which was built on the rock of historical adventure, unusual genitals, and the American dream. Eugenides has taken a risk with this novel, with his knowing tone and his aggressive syllabus. I found the first page repellent in its presentation of Madeleine’s shelf list — the “Colette novels she read on the sly” and “the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis…” I was happy when we got to the good stuff, like a hangover.

But Eugenides knows what he is doing. At first, the heavy reading list and ponderous references are pompous, like a student who has done her homework and is trying to drop some pithy stuff into the class discussion. On its face, The Marriage Plot appears to be a novel that mentions a lot of novels without talking about any of them. These facile, knowing references disguise the sly ways that this novel engages with its predecessors.

Eugenides layers his allusions in an exciting and well-concealed way so that viewed from one angle, the novel is a relatively old-fashioned love-triangle cum young adult drama. But the novel is full of parallels and inversions, using its sources on a number of levels. As the novel opens, we look at Madeleine’s shelves, upon which are arranged the novels of Wharton, Austen, Eliot, “and the redoubtable Brontë sisters.” But, it’s immediately clear, Madeleine is no Lily Bart, no Ellen Olenska. She’s May Welland, Emma Woodhouse. As The Marriage Plot continues, she becomes Dorothea Brooke or Jane Eyre.

At the end of her own novel, saintly Jane Eyre tells us that “my time and cares were now required by another — my husband needed them all,” a moment with clear echoes in Eugenides’s book. Jane looks after her maimed husband, but her narrative closes with St. John Rivers, gone to India where he

…clears their painful way to improvement: he hews down like a giant the prejudices of creed and caste that encumber it…His is the ambition of the high master-spirit, which aims to fill a place in the first rank of those who are redeemed from the earth — who stand without fault before the throne of God; who share the last mighty victories of the Lamb; who are called, and chosen, and faithful.

Mitchell’s Calcutta gross-outs, his religious yearnings, his bhang enthusiasms, are a new take on the monastic St. John.

coverThis novel is a surface upon which we might project the other novels we have read; Eugenides invites us so to do. In Calcutta, all Mitchell sees of Mother Teresa are the yellow soles of her feet, and I thought of T.S. Eliot: “You curled the papers from your hair,/ Or clasped the yellow soles of feet/ In the palms of both soiled hands.” Mitchell and Madeleine return from Thanksgiving, “walked together up College Hill, hugged, and parted,” which conjures a vague jumble of 19th century and earlier works in my brain. Every fictional hangover past 1954 owes something to the ur-hangover of Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim. Like Jim, Madeleine has to perform a duty with a blinding hangover after a night of bad sexual decisions. Like Jim, she enlists a person whom she has wronged to help her. The echoes are so subtle I heard them only after I had finished the book. Maybe I’m reaching, but I think the novel encourages us to reach. Eugenides’s characters appear to have read everything; we assume that he has read everything, and more.

I initially wondered if, with this book, Eugenides will alienate readers who are not readers like the readers in his novel. I doubt it, because I’m not a reader like the readers in his novel, not by a long shot, and even without having read Thomas Merton or Deleuze & Guattari I can follow and enjoy a story about a pretty girl, a crazy boy, and a pining best friend.

Madeleine’s Semiotics 211 classmates like the theorists who “wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers.” Even though her classmates are silly, they have a point. Like Madeleine, I think of myself as a reading traditionalist, a person who wants “a book to take her places she couldn’t go herself” and who additionally wants “something to happen” to its characters “in a place resembling the world.” As a reader, I make tea with leaves and tea cozies, and as that kind of reader, this book satisfies me. I have to say that for adventure, pizzazz and magic carpet rides, The Marriage Plot doesn’t do it for me like Middlesex. As a book snob, The Marriage Plot does more. I can guess at the references and congratulate myself on recognizing the novel’s technical complexity.

But my opinion is like, problematized, as the Semiotics 211 kids might say. I waited for this book. I waited nine years and I wanted it bad. I rubbed my hands and its pages and fondled it and felt a physical stirring. Getting what you wait for makes the awaited thing both better and worse than it is. Was it good for me, this book? Yeah, it was good. It surprised me; it got me thinking about the things that Eugenides can do as a writer. The poor man doesn’t even get to bask a moment in his achievement before his fans are impatient for the next thing. I begin the long wait anew.

Bonus Link: Jeffrey Eugenides explains “How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write The Marriage Plot.”

Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected].





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4 Responses to “Wanting it Bad: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides”

  1. Ana
    at 12:28 pm on October 19, 2011

    This is a great review! I can relate especially to the hopelessness surrounding new releases.

    Recently, upon entering B&N, I actually actively looked for The Marriage Plot but couldn’t find it. The new release section was depressingly dominated by mediocre or not-so-new items, and this made me realize the sheer power B&N has over readers who prefer brick-and-mortar books but who are not staying current on reviews through sites like these.

  2. elle
    at 9:00 am on October 20, 2011

    @Ana: I have that experience every time I walk into a B & N on New Release Tuesdays – anxiously searching for a new title and having to ask someone to fetch a copy from the back room because no one has put them out yet. Ridiculous.

  3. My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: October 20, 2011 « Hungry Like the Woolf
    at 6:13 am on October 21, 2011

    [...] Another Eugenides review, this one by Lydia Kiesling. (The Millions) [...]

  4. 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists Announced – Todd Library: Featured Resources Blog
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    [...] Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write The Marriage Plot, our review, excerpt [...]

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