Monday, January 14, 2013

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Like with The Chaperone, I am again only reading now what everyone was reading last year (or the year before last? I am so out of touch) – Jeffrey Eugenides’ third book, The Marriage Plot. The eponymous marriage plot is the term for the trope used by authors where the plot revolves around who a heroine will marry. This book asks if, in a time where women can be financially and socially independent and divorce is easily accessible, does the marriage plot have a place in literature?

Based on this text, the answer is a resounding no. The book opens on graduation day at Brown College in the ‘80s. Madeline has woken up hungover in last night’s clothes, which are marked with a suspicious stain. Over the first few chapters there are parents, gowns, obligations both fulfilled and unfulfilled and we are introduced to the subjects of our marriage plot: the beautiful Madeline, tortured Leonard and earnest Martin (reportedly based on Jonathon Franzen, David Wallace Foster and the author respectively). Martin loves Madeline, Madeline loves Leonard and Leonard isn’t in a position to really love anyone. More on that later.

The first section is mainly Madeline’s story and I devoured it. It’s not that Madeline’s a particularly likeable character but moments of this part felt so true – like the contradictory feelings of guilt and pleasure you have when you spend time with someone who likes you but you don’t like them back but you like the feeling of them liking you which in turns makes you feel like a bad person. Or that moment where some guy in a tutorial is being a complete wanker and you look around expecting to find the group rolling their eyes and see that everyone else is enraptured and you’re the only one who can see the ridiculousness of the situation. There’s lots of discussions about books and theory which I, as an English graduate loved (although I didn’t study literature so some of it was gibberish to me), but I did wonder if someone who wasn’t familiar with postmodernism and literary theory would give enjoy the book at all. I am using semiotics in my thesis and I loved the scenes that featured the class discussions, particularly Madeline’s relief when she finds a writer whose sentences follow on logically from each other (postmodern writing is notoriously dense). The first 125 pages of The Marriage Plot is fabulous and enjoyable and exactly I expected from the author of a great novel like Middlesex. It was great!

I just wish I’d stopped reading on page 126. After the characters left college, I can’t put my finger on exactly what happened but the story got boring. Mitchell goes to Europe and then India to find himself. Leonard has a bipolar episode and is hospitalised, then Madeline and Leonard to go Cape Cod so he can do a postgrad research fellowship. The focus moves from Madeline and the marriage plot onto Martin and Leonard’s personal journeys. The thing is, though, it’s actually not very interesting to read about self-conscious privileged educated white men not do much except reflect on themselves and change geographical location. One of the main criticisms levelled against The Marriage Plot is that it’s pretentious. I didn’t feel it was pretentious as much as it was indulgent – indulgent in length and in its treatment of its male characters (to quote Woody Allen, it suffered from the three esses – self-indulget, sophomoric and solipsistic). I skimmed the last 200 pages, skipping Mitchell’s Eat Pray Ponder Indian journey in full. It was a struggle to make it to the end of the book and one I probably wouldn’t have done if it wasn’t a Eugenides novel – there was always a faint hope it would improve. It didn’t. My recommendation is to stop at 126 pages and read about the rest on Goodreads – that’s exactly what I wish I’d done.

Eugenides pulls off an efficient and effective feminist bait-and-switch with this novel. Books with a marriage plot have women and their social and economic roles and power at their centre. Eugenides opens a book with a modern-day marriage plot with a strong and interesting female protagonist but, after the trio graduate, Madeline shifts from having a voice and agency to being defined solely by her role as love object, nurse, wife and daughter. The marriage plot in The Marriage Plot is not a love triangle but a power struggle with a woman as the object of exchange and possession. I’m giving this book three stars  - five stars for its brilliant beginning minus two stars for the woeful ending and hidden misogyny.