Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Marriage Plot - Jeffrey Eugenides

I really liked Jeffrey Eugenides's first two novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, so I was definitely eager to check out his third - which has received wonderful reviews.  The novel follows several characters after their graduation from Eugenides's alma mater, Brown University.  It centers around Madeleine, an intelligent, but co-dependent young woman, and her relationship with her bi-polar boyfriend Leonard.  Completing the triangle is her sometimes friend, Mitchell, who is traveling the world to find himself and forget about her.  The book flashes back to college, and forward to their current lives positing the relationships as love stories in comparison and contrast to the great marriage plot novels of the 19th Century.  This book reminded me of all the fiction I've read by Jonathan Franzen - clever and well-written, but with extremely self-absorbed and annoying characters that define the term "first-world problems."  Other than Leonard who seems to come from a troubled background and clearly suffers from a real mental illness, the other characters seem to suffer from general malaise brought about by their privilege and lack of imagination.  Madeleine's belief that she can "save" Leonard is such a tired cliche that I kept expecting Eugenides to come up with some kind of twist on the narrative, but it never came.  As a portrait of living life with someone with mental illness, I thought Eugenides probably portrayed everything quite acurately - the highs and lows, the selfishness, the drama, the fear - and this is something I found valuable to read in terms of the work that I do.  But in terms of literature I want to identify with, with characters I actually care about, The Marriage Plot, like so many endings to Victorian novels, was a sad disappointment.

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