Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and New Adult Fiction


Check out the Möbius wedding band cover art.
I love the way Jeffrey Eugenides writes with rich, intelligent prose. His characters, even the minor ones, are well developed, fallible and idiosyncratic. They feel like old friends by the time you finish the novel. His Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex (2002) is one of my favorite books. His recently released The Marriage Plot (2011), although not nearly as groundbreaking, also has wonderful characters on spiritual journeys. I especially loved the thoughtful Mitchell Grammaticus. Mitchell’s unhealthy obsession with Madeleine Hanna, and hers with mentally unbalanced Leonard Bankhead, and Leonard's with himself, felt comically true to life.
“Exactly!” Mitchell cried [to Madeleine] “You’re not attracted to me physically, O.K., fine. But who says I was ever attracted to you mentally?”
“My goal in life is to be an adjective,” Leonard said. “People would go around saying, ‘That was so Bankheadian.’” 
Eugenides is an author of my generation. The Marriage Plot, set at Brown University in the 1980’s, could have been a memoir written by one of my classmates at another Ivy League school. It captures the irritating intellectual climate of English Departments of that time, with a focus on Semiotics over Literature. The seminar scenes were tedious if well rendered, but I enjoyed his seedy portrait of campus life and Providence, Rhode Island. I could not get enough of the scenes set in India with Mitchell’s struggle for compassion over revulsion. This engaging novel sets forth an unflinching view of modern life and human shortcomings without resorting to cynicism.
At a college party: “The air was warm and moist, like a beer-scented rain forest.”
The Marriage Plot somehow manages to be both original and conventional. Eugenides superimposed a Victorian-style marriage plotline on the liberal, feminist 1980s with hilarious results. Unfortunately, this literary construct led to an unsatisfying ending that makes the reader acutely aware of the narrative structure. There was, however, something liberating in the reversal of expectations and the defiance of convention. It made me question the biases of traditional literature. I can’t stop thinking about the maddening ending but to say any more would spoil it.
“Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?”
Among book bloggers, there had been a call for a new genre: New Adult Fiction. These books would focus on the college years and nascent career building. There are surprisingly few books in this category, and such manuscripts are notoriously hard to sell. The few that I have read, I’ve loved: A Secret History by Donna Tart; One Day by David Nicholls and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Publishers fear that college-aged kids or recent graduates lack the time, money or inclination for recreational reading. Even if that were so, I’m sure nostalgic adults would buy these books as would teens, wondering about their future. I hope that The Marriage Plot will lead to more New Adult novels.

Disclosure: I bought The Marriage Plot at Gulf of Maine Books without compensation. 

Happy Five: January marked my fifth anniversary of blogging.  Time flies!
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@Barrie Summy

12 comments:

tina said...

A beer scented rainforest sure paints a picture. Very descriptive.

troutbirder said...

Well developed characterizations works for me. Unfortunately perhaps, I'll take the consequences of sexual equality ( as a basis for novels) over the "heartrending" cosequences of Victorian Gothics... Nice review. :)

pattinase (abbott) said...

My daughter loved this one, but I found it a bit tedious. I loved his two earlier books however.

Stacy said...

For me, it took me a while to decide if I liked this one. (I eventually decided I did, but my expectations had been ridiculously high as Eugenides is my one of my absolute favorite writers.) I liked Mitchell the best too, but I had a difficult time relating to Madeleine or Leonard.

If I hadn't taken Lit Theory in college, I would have been really lost in the first third of this book.

A Cuban In London said...

I loved those scenes you quoted. The language is witty without the author coming across as snobbish or arrogant. Many thanks for this recommendation.

Greetings from London.

Beth Yarnall said...

I love good prose, you sold me on those excerpts. Thanks for the review.

Donna said...

I like the genre of "New Adult" fiction, probably because I really enjoyed that time in my own life. A Secret History is on my bookshelf waiting to be read in the next few weeks. I've heard a lot about The Marriage Plot and it sounds like an interesting book. I haven't read anything by him yet.

Amanda said...

new adult fiction....why not? it's curious that new categories are being added at a time when the stretch of development between adolescence and adulthood is now protracted more than ever.

i stopped reading middlesex midstream a few years ago....i really don't know why, because his prose is exquisite. perhaps the subject matter became a bit tedious to me, but i'll try to return to it.

congratulations on your 5 year anniversary, sarah!

cynthia newberry martin said...

Glad to read your review of this book--all the things you liked about it. Because I could not finish it. And love the illustrations above.

carolflowerhillfarm said...

Great review Sarah! “The air was warm and moist, like a beer-scented rain forest.” What a wonderful descriptive sentence . . . certainly takes one back. Happy Five years of blogging!! I am glad to have found you in the last two or so. Your thoughtful reviews and beautiful art enrich and inspire many lives. Many Happy Returns! Carol

Booksnyc said...

Middlesex is one of my favorite books too - I almost didn't read it because the summary really didn't interest me - but a friend convinced me to read it and I am so glad she did. I can't wait to read The Marriage Plot!

Congrats on your 5 years of blogging!

Bee said...

It's been on my to-read shelf for months now! Can't wait for summer, when I can read some adult fiction again.

Happy 5th Anniversary! (a few months late)