When you only publish a book once every decade or so—and your last novel won the Pulitzer Prize, to boot—expectations for your next work are bound to be excessively high. Oh, and when that last book was a weird and wonderful mega-seller like Middlesex, well, that’s the dilemma for Jeffrey Eugenides. What do you do for an encore?
Probably the smartest thing for any writer to do under these daunting circumstances is to go in a very different direction, and with The Marriage Plot, Eugenides does just that. Less epic in proportion than Middlesex, and far more conventional in narrative, this much-anticipated novel uses the traditional device of a love triangle to explore questions of religion, identity, mental illness and, of course, love. Its title is a play on the term often applied to 19th-century Regency and Victorian novels (by the likes of Austen, the BrontvÂ´s and Mrs. Gaskell) that center on the attainment of a suitable marriage.
Because he borrows peripheral details from his own life for his fiction, it might seem that Eugenides is a writer of thinly veiled autobiography, but he assures readers that The Marriage Plot is an invention. “I’ve had to pare down the autobiography in order to find the fiction,” he confessed to his editor Jonathan Galassi in an interview on FSG’s Work in Progress blog. “Autobiography is a largely fraudulent exercise. People don’t understand their lives or what happened to them; they only think they do. . . . Autobiography (or life) is artless.”
Still, in some ways it seems hard to separate one of The Marriage Plot’s central characters from his creator. Like Eugenides, Mitchell Grammaticus is a Greek-American from Detroit who graduates from Brown University in 1982. Like the author, Mitchell spends some time in Calcutta, working as an orderly at Mother Teresa’s Home for Dying Destitutes (this section of the novel was excerpted in the New Yorker’s summer fiction issue under the title “Asleep in the Lord”). In an interview with the New Yorker, Eugenides conceded that this part of the book is the most autobiographical thing he has ever published, while holding fast to the assertion that, “Almost everything I’ve ever written, and especially Middlesex, is made up.”
The pivot on whom The Marriage Plot revolves is Madeleine Hanna, a newly minted English major who, alas, like many English majors, finds herself cast into post-college life without a practical rudder to help her navigate the real world. Madeleine and Mitchell have been close friends since the beginning of freshman year and, as is so often the case in these collegiate pairings, Mitchell is madly in love with Madeleine, but she does not share his feelings and prefers to remain “just friends.” Their inevitable schism is painful, especially for Mitchell, who continues to pine for what might have been. Madeleine, though, has turned her full attention to Leonard Bankhead, a student in her semiotics seminar who is brilliant, moody and widely reputed to be oversexed.
Eugenides takes us deep inside the hearts and minds of this trio of intelligent young people.
Madeleine and Leonard fall intensely in love in a kind of hyper-intellectualized, collegiate way (they share a passion for the arcane lit-crit of Roland Barthes). What Madeleine doesn’t realize at first, though, is that Leonard’s charismatic brilliance (and bedroom stamina) can be attributed to his manic depression. When she breaks off their relationship, Leonard spirals down into madness. With a foreboding navÃvetvÂ©, Madeleine skips her graduation ceremony to race to his side in the psych ward. Reunited, they become the doomed lovers of the piece, and like their counterparts in 19th-century fiction, wedded to their tragedy. Mitchell, meanwhile, sets off for a year in Europe and India, intent on forgetting Madeleine while fulfilling a spiritual quest.
The novel deals with issues that obsess young intellectuals—the nature of love, religious truths, the meaning of life—which would explain why the 51-year-old Eugenides has chosen to set it among college students. “To me, college doesn’t seem that long ago,” he told the New Yorker. “It wasn’t hard to remember the music we listened to or the films we watched, or the way I felt back then. Much of the novel is written from the point of view of a young woman graduating from college. So, as with any book, it was more of a labor of imagination than recollection.”
It makes perfect sense that this story of intense love originates on campus, because for many, the university years are marked by a geographical and emotional intimacy unmatched in the outside world. Eugenides does a terrific job capturing a certain kind of college experience during a distinct era, and for those of us who shared that experience, there is instant recognition. A convincing novel can capture an age and cement it in memory, and The Marriage Plot does so, achieving something halfway between amusement and nostalgia.
By borrowing both title and conceit from the Victorian marriage plot novel as the basis for his own, Eugenides dares to make a bold literary statement. The seminal novels of the 19th century, even those that highlight the domestic, are predominately about society rather than the individual. The Marriage Plot, though, has narrower concerns, focusing as it does on three characters whose dilemmas are based in decidedly late 20th-century solipsism. Madeleine, most of all, remains an[Sat Aug 30 22:21:24 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. enigma—a highly intelligent, fortunate rich girl, who casts aside everything her education has taught her to enter what she herself disdainfully calls a “Stage One” marriage (“traditional people who marry their college sweethearts, usually the summer after graduation”). It is no wonder disaster looms. All three of the characters, though, are well drawn and pertinent, advancing the plot equally through action and inaction, and Eugenides takes us deep inside the hearts and minds (really inseparable here) of this trio of intelligent young people in order to dissect some basic truths about the unpredictable nature of love.
A gifted writer, Eugenides does so much well. He has a great talent for zeroing in on the perfect delineating detail—he describes Madeleine’s well-bred WASP mother, for instance, as “all hairdo and handbag”—and the intelligent, self-deprecating humor that percolates beneath the characters’ adolescent angst endears them to us, despite their lapses into self-indulgence.
Perhaps the greatest strength in the novel is Eugenides’ depiction of Leonard’s manic depression. Readers are convincingly led though the trenches with him as he repeatedly relapses and rebounds. Whereas Leonard may not be the easiest character to like (the blogosphere is abuzz with rumors that he is based on the late writer David Foster Wallace), Eugenides helps clarify his misunderstood affliction with compassion and insight.
It will be interesting to see if Eugenides’ fans embrace The Marriage Plot with the same fervor they showed for Middlesex (which has sold more than 3 million copies). It is certainly an ambitious novel and, in the end, after some woolgathering, its exploration of the vagaries and frailties of the human heart wins the day. Whatever critics and readers say, don’t expect a reaction from the famously circumspect writer himself. “If you want to write fiction, you have to be congenitally deaf to readerly murmurs about your character,” Eugenides told the New Yorker. “The trick to fiction-writing is to get the reader to believe what you’ve written. The greater your success at that, the more you deform yourself in certain literal minds.”Copyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.
Leah Hager Cohen’s poignant fourth novel, The Grief of Others, follows a married couple as they try to move forward in the wake of tragedy. When their infant son dies, John and Ricky Ryrie struggle to regain their footing. Shifting into denial mode, they return to the business of daily living, which includes caring for their other two children, Biscuit, 10, and Paul, 13. As life resumes, John and Ricky find that the tragedy causes the cracks in their already fragile relationship to deepen. Picking up on the stress at home, Biscuit starts skipping school, while Paul is bullied by classmates. John and Ricky seem oblivious to these difficulties until a special visitor wakes them up to reality—and to fresh possibilities for the future. Cohen’s perceptive portrayal of a frayed family offers a multifaceted look at the grieving process. This sensitively executed novel will resonate with readers long after the final page is turned.
THE POWER OF IDEAS
Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern recounts the history and influence of one of philosophy’s most important works: Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. Rediscovered about 600 years ago, the poem proposes that the universe operates without the guidance of an omnipotent being and all matter is composed of tiny particles. Copied and dispersed throughout Europe, it added to the feverish atmosphere of inquiry that characterized the Renaissance. Over the centuries, Lucretius’ poem impacted some of the world’s most e[Sat Aug 30 22:21:24 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. steemed minds, including Shakespeare, Darwin and Einstein. The work also affected Greenblatt when he discovered it in the 1960s, shaking up his ideas about death and the afterlife, as he recounts in the book’s delightful personal sections. A respected scholar, Greenblatt is also a stylish, accessible writer. His latest book is a testament to the power of ideas—a compelling narrative that shines new light on our intellectual roots.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides returns with The Marriage Plot, a tale of romance and academia set in the early 1980s. The novel’s heroine, Madeleine Hanna, is an English major at Brown University and a romantic at heart. During her senior year, she becomes emotionally entangled with two very different guys: Mitchell Grammaticus, a reliable religious-studies major, and volatile Leonard Bankhead, an unpredictable but gifted student. Neither one is Madeleine’s ideal match, but she eventually marries Leonard, while Mitchell embarks on a soul-searching journey to Calcutta. Madeleine’s happily-ever-after is disrupted when Mitchell suddenly reappears in her life, his affection for her still alive. Eugenides’ novel charms even as it poses important questions about identity, maturity and the nature of relationships.
A stunning novel—erudite, compassionate and penetrating in its analysis of love relationships.
Eugenides focuses primarily on three characters, who all graduate from Brown in 1982. One of the pieces of this triangle is Madeleine Hanna, who finds herself somewhat embarrassed to have emerged from a "normal" household in New Jersey (though we later find out the normality of her upbringing is only relative). She becomes enamored with Leonard, a brilliant but moody student, in their Semiotics course, one of the texts being, ironically, Roland Barthes'ÃÂ A Lover's Discourse, which Madeleine finds disturbingly problematic in helping her figure out her own love relationship. We discover that Leonard had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder during his first year at Brown, and his struggle with mood swings throughout the novel is both titanic and tender. The third major player is Mitchell, a Religious Studies major who is also attracted to Madeleine but whose reticence she finds both disturbing and incomprehensible. On graduation day, Leonard has a breakdown and is hospitalized in a mental-health ward, and Madeleine shows her commitment by skipping the festivities and seeking him out. After graduation, Leonard and Madeleine live together when Leonard gets an internship at a biology lab on Cape Cod, and the spring after graduation they marry, when Leonard is able to get his mood swings under temporary control. Meanwhile Mitchell, who takes his major seriously, travels to India seeking a path—and briefly finds one when he volunteers to work with the dying in Calcutta. But Mitchell's road to self-discovery eventually returns him to the States—and opens another opportunity for love that complicates Madeleine's life.
Dazzling work—Eugenides continues to show that he is one of the finest of contemporary novelists.
ÃÂCopyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
A Pulitzer Prize winner for Middlesex, which has sold more than three million copies, and of the darkly delicious The Virgin Suicides (catch the Sofia Coppola film), Eugenides doesn't necessarily need me to rave about him. But I'm so taken with the idea behind this novel. Madeleine Hanna, a conscientious, neatly dressed English major in the early 1980s, blissfully reads Austen while everyone else studies Derrida. (Yes, I remember it well.) She finally decides to get hip by taking a semiotics class, where she meets irresistible loner Leonard Morten, who teaches her about more than signs and symbols. Meanwhile, the wittily named Mitchell Grammaticus, a voice from Madeleine's past, demands that they spend their lives together. A novel of ideas and triangular love from the brilliantly off-kilter Eugenides; with a one-day laydown, a national tour, library marketing, and a reading group guide. Get multiples.[Page 66]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
"The way of true love never works out, except at the end of an English novel." So says Trollope in Barchester Towers, one of those English novels where "the marriage plot" thrived until it was swept aside by 20th-century reality. Now Roland Barthes's contention that "the lover's discourse is today of an extreme solitude" better sums up the situation. Or so English literature-besotted Madeleine, 1980s Brown graduating senior, comes to discover. Giving in to the zeitgeist, Madeleine takes a course on semiotics and meets Leonard, who's brilliant, charismatic, and unstable. They've broken up, which makes moody spiritual seeker Mitchell Grammaticus happy, since he pines for Madeleine. But on graduation day, Madeleine discovers that Leonard is in the hospital--in fact, he is a manic depressive with an on-again, off-again relationship with his medications--and leaps to his side. So begins the story of their love (but does it work out?), as Mitchell heads to Europe and beyond for his own epiphanies. VERDICT Your standard love triangle? Absolutely not. This extraordinary, liquidly written evocation of love's mad rush and inevitable failures will feed your mind as you rapidly turn the pages. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 4/11/11.]--Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal[Page 83]. (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Eugenides's first novel since 2002's Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex so impressively, ambitiously breaks the mold of its predecessor that it calls for the founding of a new prize to recognize its success both as a novel--and as a Jeffrey Eugenides novel. Importantly but unobtrusively set in the early 1980s, this is the tale of Madeleine Hanna, recent Brown University English grad, and her admirer Mitchell Grammaticus, who opts out of Divinity School to walk the earth as an ersatz pilgrim. Madeleine is equally caught up, both with the postmodern vogue (Derrida, Barthes)--conflicting with her love of James, Austen, and Salinger--and with the brilliant Leonard Bankhead, whom she met in semiotics class and whose fits of manic depression jeopardize his suitability as a marriage prospect. Meanwhile, Mitchell winds up in Calcutta working with Mother Theresa's volunteers, still dreaming of Madeleine. In capturing the heady spirit of youthful intellect on the verge, Eugenides revives the coming-of-age novel for a new generation The book's fidelity to its young heroes and to a superb supporting cast of enigmatic professors, feminist theorists, neo-Victorians, and concerned mothers, and all of their evolving investment in ideas and ideals is such that the central argument of the book is also its solution: the old stories may be best after all, but there are always new ways to complicate them. (Oct.)[Page ]. Copyright 2011 PWxyz LLC