The Pains of Shared Experience

Jeffrey Eugenides stands tall in the world of literature. In his long prolific writing career, he has written a score of short stories, collected several accolades, and has garnered the admiration of many a fellow writer. He is also an accomplished novelist. In 2003, his unique coming-of-age novel Middlesex has won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Indeed, he has an illustrious career and he possesses a literary resume that is thick and splendid; these are two accomplishment a young writer can only aspire for.

As a novelist, Eugenides is renowned for his long hiatuses. The time difference between the publication of his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides (1993) and his second novel, Middlesex (2002), is nine years. It took another nine years to publish his third novel, The Marriage Plot. According to Eugenides, it took him about five or six to complete the novel before it was published in 2011. Just like his previous work, it was well received by critics and many a publication such as The Guardian and The Washington Post listed it as one of the best reads of 2011.

The Marriage Plot, loosely based on Eugenides collegiate experience, is the story of three distinct characters whose lives converged while studying at the prestigious Brown University in the early 1980s. The central character, the narrative’s muse is Madeleine Hanna, an English major born to an affluent family. She is love with Leonard Bankhead, a Biology major, with whom she is planning to move in with post-graduation. On the other hand, Theology major Mitchell Grammaticus was in love with Madeleine. After graduating from the university, he embarked on a tour-cum-pilgrimage to Europe and India with his best friend Larry.

“The lover`s discourse was of an extreme solitude. The solitude was extreme because it wasn`t physical. It was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, the most solitary of places.”

~ Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

As they leave the safety of the citadel that is Brown University, the lives of Madeliene, Leonard and Mitchell start to unravel. They slowly realize that, despite its own challenges, Brown is a comfortable environment compared to the labyrinthine world beyond it. As each character pursues his and her own endeavor, each was beset with challenges that reshapes the way they view the world. As they march forward, the pains of reality unfolded in ways they didn’t expect it to. Each day was an opportunity to learn, grow, and mature. As they pursue their personal journeys, the narrative branches out into different directions, each with its own texture, complexion, and complexity.

The Marriage Plot was guised as a trite love triangle story – predictable, cliched, and mundane. However, The Marriage Plot doesn’t reduce itself into a victim of yet another banal literary trope. In true Eugenides fashion, he wove rich details of seminal subjects, carefully spreading them out into what seems like a vast and plain canvass. Eugenides embellished and enhanced the narrative by exploring profound but seminal subjects such as mental health, sexism, religion, homosexuality, the objectification of women, and gender roles. Although the story was set in 1980s America, these are themes and subjects that remain relevant over time.

The narrative is, of course, about marriage, as can be surmised from the title. The first part of the novel dwells on Madeleine’s concerns around her collegiate thesis which revolves around the idea of quintessential “marriage plot”. Her thesis explores how English romanticists like Jane Austen have created the quintessential “marriage plot”. This also crisscrossed with a subtle discussion and correlation between a person and his or her age during his or her marriage. Those who marry right after college are deemed to be old school while those who marry late in their thirties do it out of desperation.

“Remember that day you said you loved me? Remember that? See, you could do that because you’re basically a sane person, who grew up in a loving, sane family. You could take a risk like that. But in my family we didn’t go around saying we loved each other. We went around screaming at each other. So what do I do, when you say you love me? I go and undermine it.”

~ Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

In the initial pages of the story, discourses and references on several seminal literary works was abound. One of the most memorable discussion is about the merits of Peter Handke’s Wunschloses Unglück (A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1972). A semi-autobiographical novel, it was the author’s reflection on the life of his mother after she took her own life. This discussion was centered on Handke’s detached, if not casual, manner of relating his mother’s life. The prevailing opinion was that mother and son dynamics has been over-explored in literature. The only way for Handke to create a lasting and deep impact was to step out of the box, and write about their relationship in a manner rarely used in exploring similar subject.

The discussion surrounding Handke and A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was lengthy and healthy that it seems to belie a deeper purpose. It subtly underscored Eugenides’ own conviction in writing The Marriage Plot. He wanted to challenge the literary paradigm for marriages and relationships that have long been in existence due to classical romanticists. To some extent, he did achieve some clarity in as much as this subject is concerned. Ironically, the narrative was filled with dysfunctional marriages, some repairable more than the others.

The extensive scrutiny of bipolar disorder and manic depression was one of the novel’s more defining facets. Eugenides vividly related how it affects an individual and the relationships he or she builds. The prevailing attitude, or rather stigma, of the period towards it (and similar mental health issues) was also captured by Eugenides, weaving its details with acuity into the novel. “He suffered from something that would never go away, something that could only be “managed”,” is a deep reflection of how mental health disorders were dealt with and although the story was set in 1980s, this remark still ripples today.

The story was divided in six parts – A Madman in Love, Pilgrims, Brilliant Move, Asleep in the Lord, And Sometimes They Were Very Sad, and The Bachelorette’s Survival Kit. Each part explored seminal points in the character’s lives. The discussion on literature and books in the earlier parts of the narrative was engaging, with its intellectual association and sharp scrutiny. Although it felt more like a distraction, the part of Mitchell’s pilgrimage to Europe and Calcutta was a pivotal point in the story. Unfortunately, as the story progressed, it shifted its focus towards another unrelated facet.

 “The worst part was that, as the years passed, these memories became, in the way you kept them in a secret box in your head, taking them out every so often to turn them over and over, something like dear possessions. They were the key to your unhappiness. They were the evidence that life wasn’t fair. If you weren’t a lucky child, you didn’t know you weren’t lucky until you got older. And then it was all you ever thought about.”

~ Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

A significant portion of the narrative was done and written very well that it took several hundred of pages before the flaws started emerge. With several strands that pursue various directions, the themes and subjects never seem to converge. Eugenides created one too many strands, letting them diverge midway with the expectation that they will converge down the road; they rarely intersected. The bevy of subjects and themes soon start to weigh down on the story, reversing a strong and promising start. Taken individually, the various themes and subjects were striking but as a whole unit, the impact was ephemeral.

It was a good thing that Eugenides’ characterization was on point. His writing captured the drama of coming of age through the three distinct characters. Each character, keenly fleshed out, was unique and possesses flaws that makes them relatable. There were, however, dimensions to their personalities that defy the realms of authenticity. Madeleine, for instance, was a fine creation but, most of the time her relationship with women (like her mother and sister) was characterized by resentment.

The Marriage Plot was a fine work of fiction but it didn’t live up to the lofty standards its predecessors has set. It was neither bad nor good – it was just right there. Eugenides showcased his literary repertoire but it fell short on some points. It was a hit and miss work, and its misses were more impressionable than its hits. The writing was exceptional, stellar even, but the impact of the subjects it grappled with was mostly ephemeral. The conclusion was also predictable, a reminder to how Eugenides scampered down the same trite path he resolved to wander away from.

Rating

62%

Characters (30%) – 21%
Plot (30%) – 15%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 8%

I do love how The Marriage Plot extensively explored seminal and timely subjects such as love, religion, charity and especially mental health. Except for the way it concluded, the exploration of mental health was superb and thought-provoking. I felt like Eugenides was being greedy in trying to cover as much ground as possible but he fell short. Each theme, on its own, was grappled with deft discourse; Eugenides has a canny ability for doing so as I have also noted in Middlesex. However, the themes never seem to intersect. Worse, Eugenides scampered down the same cliched path he painstakingly tried to avoid.

Book Specs

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Publishing Date: 2011
Number of Pages: 406
Genre: Novel, Fiction

Synopsis

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 the 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. (Source: Goodreads)

About the Author

To learn more about Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jeffrey Eugenides, click here.