Thursday, February 2, 2012

Group Review: The Marriage Plot

Summary:  It’s the early 1980s—the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.

As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead—charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy—suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus—who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange—resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology Laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives. ~product description

Jenn's Review:  One of the marvelous things about our reading challenge is that it gets each of us to step outside our genre comfort zone.  That being said, this book is not of a genre I particularly enjoy.  I wouldn't say I had low expectations for this book, I was actually quite hopeful... I'm really looking forward to reading Alice's and Julie's reviews, because maybe they can point out something I missed, because I don't get it.

Seriously?  That's it?!?  I feel like I just sat through Remains of the Day again.  I just kept waiting for something to happen -anything to happen- and nothing ever did.  I would say that the story ends right where you expect it to, but, no, I actually think it ends just before that (perhaps as an effort to prevent anything from happening?).  I am a firm believer that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It's why I don't write.  I only ever have two of the three.  For me, The Marriage Plot was all middle.

The characters were mildly interesting, but I wasn't really attached to them  I think it's actually a credit to Jeffrey Eugenides writing style that he kept me engaged enough to not set the book down.  It reads like three separate diaries and while I'm not sure why I should have taken an interest in any of them, I found his narrative style enjoyable.  However, I found it extremely odd that Madeleine has no genuine female friends.  I know dealing with mental illness can be isolating, but this detail was just downright strange. I'd chalk it up to the fact that we just didn't see them because the story was about her relationship with Leonard (and her lack of relationship with Mitchell), but those are exactly the things you involve your girlfriends in. It just doesn't fit.

Though I liked Jeffrey Eugenides narrative style, I obviously didn't care for his narrative. I didn't feel like any of the characters really learned anything or changed.  They were just amplifications of who they were when the novel began.  I hope my friends can enlighten me.  I'm mystified.

Final Take:  3/5

Alice's Review:  One of the many reasons I like challenges is it brings me out of my reading comfort zone. I wouldn’t have picked The Marriage Plot in a million years. I can’t remember the last time I read a novel in the literary fiction category. After reading this one, I know why.

Two things trouble me about literary fiction. The first is the use of ten-dollar words when nickel words work just fine. The second is using 100 words for something that could be said in five. This book is all about the big descriptions. Mr. Eugenides loves to go on and on. And on. Granted, he does it very well but after a while, I was speaking to my Kindle saying “spit it out already!”

I read this waiting for something to happen. Nothing happened or at least it felt like nothing happened. The novel follows the lives of three people who meet in college: Madeleine, the smart and beautiful girl who took the chance on love; Leonard, the charismatic but troubled boy warring with his inner demon; and Mitchell (my favorite), the visionary and seeker. The novel begins at graduation and ends a couple years later with each character passage into adulthood. Some journeys were literal but all were emotional.

Considering how difficult it was for me to get into this novel, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I am not sure if it was because of writing itself, of Mitchell and his journey, or if I was glad it was finally over. I really enjoyed how Mr. Eugenides filled the holes of the story with each person’s point of view. I loved the “two sides of every story” basis. As much as I criticize the wordiness of this novel, I think it is essential to reveal the inner workings of the characters. I like that the novel felt unfinished. That Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell still had a way to go, their journey far from over.

If it wasn’t for the challenge, I wouldn’t have read this book. After reading it, I probably won’t recommend it unless someone wanted a good stick to your ribs novel, one that feeds your brain more than your soul. And truth be told, I’m not in a rush to read anything else by Mr. Eugenides.

Final Take: 3/5

Julie's Review: This was my pick for the GJR Challenge and while I've read Eugenides before, I was wondering if The Marriage Plot would live up to all the hype. It did and it didn't. While it was a solid book, it wasn't great. I felt that I was taking up residency in 3 people's minds that were a bit self-involved, which didn't make them likable at first. I did feel like the book had a beginning, middle and end but we just came into their lives for a certain snapshot of it. The book was more character driven than plot driven. So, if you didn't like them or identify with them or even care about them, the book would be a bore.

I will say that off the bat it took me a bit to get into the book and well honestly made me feel a little less than smart. I had to look up a bunch of the authors on Madeleine's bookshelves and what the heck semiotics meant. Once I got past the pretentiousness of the book, I started to enjoy it. I wanted to know what was going to have to the threesome. I loved that we got to see all three characters through each others eyes. It always gives you a different perspective. Since it was character driven, I need to talk about each of them separately.

Leonard: It's not that he's difficult to like but I had a very hard time understanding the attraction or appeal of him. I couldn't quite wrap my head around why the girls on campus thought he was hot stuff and then what it was that Madeleine saw him. Then I got it, he was intense and brilliant. He really listened to you. He was engaged in conversations, he looked people straight in the eye and made them feel important.

Unfortunately, Leonard became engulfed by his disease; manic depression and in the end it made him into someone else. Mr. Eugenides did a great job of describing Manic Depression and how it not only affected the person afflicted with it but also those around them. Do I think Leonard loved Madeleine? Yes I believe he did. He was a complex character because of being manic. Would Leonard ever fulfill his own brilliance? I can honestly say that he probably does not, which is sad.

Madeleine: For me she was the least likable character of the three. She lived in her head and in her books for far to long to understand what real life really was and how to deal with it. She wanted to rescue Leonard from himself because she was so in love with him, she thought she could. She was trying to learn about love from a book, instead of just living it. Every feeling or thought she had about love, had to be validated by A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes.

She had no sense of who she was when she was with Leonard. She became another appendage of his. Therefore, we had no true sense of who she was either.  It was in small flashes during the book that I really felt I could see what she could be, if she just let herself. In the end, Madeleine will probably go on to be a pioneer in Women in Literature studies at some university since in a book is where she feels most comfortable. For me, she lived her life on the sidelines instead of being in the game.

Mitchell:  He is perhaps the easiest of the three to like and identify with, at least for me. At first he's a bit like a puppy dog in regards to Madeleine. He is so desperate to have her, he becomes a bit desperate himself. The best thing he did for himself was go on his trip and yet he couldn't escape thoughts of Madeleine. I had to wonder if he was in love with her or if he was just infatuated with her because he couldn't have her?

He was the only character to really grow and change. Did he necessarily find what he was looking for in India? Probably not but as most people learn and he will to, life is about constantly learning and constantly searching. He is the one in the end who had the most peace, even if it wasn't through religion like he had pursued. He was the one that I championed for throughout the book.

In the end, the book was about growing up. Finding out who you are or in some cases who you aren't. It's about that weird stage in life where you go from being a student to having to be a self-sufficient adult. Some make the transition well and some will struggle their whole lives to figure it out.

Mr. Eugenides is a truly gifted writer and if this book had been written by someone else, it would have faltered. It's his eloquent writing that takes you through to the end. If you haven't read Eugenides yet, then I suggest starting with Middlesex. Also, Mr. Eugenides doesn't write a book annually, I will continue to read him because his books are intriguing and so well written.

Final Take: 3.75/5



Liz Davis February 2, 2012 at 5:06 PM  

Shame I cannot enter because I'm in Austria but i wish those who are taking part good luck. You have a great blog. Liz

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