Friday, June 15, 2012

The Marriage Plot - A Work of Art

The Virgin Suicides left me baffled and the Pulitzer winning Middlesex seemed over long and difficult to me at the time, so it was with trepidation that I picked up The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides' latest contribution to the world of letters. I have to say I think it's his most accessible and fascinating character study yet.

I especially appreciate that this novel is set in the mid-'80's, a time that I only vaguely remember in terms of what was happening in my own country, let alone on a global scale. I was busy trying to patch together a court ordered family, a reluctant husband and two emotionally damaged little girls. It seems that the economy was troubled then, much like now, and gas shortages were the talk of the town, but I managed to be above it all.

The three disparate young people whose lives play out over the course of the year after their graduation from Rhode Island's Ivy League, Brown University, face challenges that will sound familiar to today's graduates, few jobs, low pay, limited choices. Still, there's no talk of loans to repay and graduate school is still an option, as is taking a year to traipse through Europe in search of oneself. Nice work if you can get it!

Leonard, Mitchell, and Madeleine first cross paths during their freshman year and though we're never quite sure why, Madeleine becomes the sun around whom the planets, Leonard and Mitchell circle, each yearning for her and wary of eachother. It's interesting to note that a writer as fine as Eugenides seems, in The Marriage Plot, to be less able to flesh out the female character with the same extraordinary depth he finds for both Leonard and Mitchell.

Though Madeleine is bright, but not brilliant, pretty but not drop-dead gorgeous, she does in fact, work hard at trying to bridge the gap between the middle class good girl that she is, and the bohemian scholar/writer she yearns to be. Her studies revolve around the great English novels of Austen, Elliot and James and the subversive "marriage plot" that colors all their work.

 Mitchell Grammaticus, the son of working class Detroiters, is a wonderful example of  a young man searching for meaning in his life, persuing religious and philosophical studies, going to India to live among the destitute and dying, all the while watching himself perform and poignantly recognizing his lack of true calling.

Leonard Bankhead might go down in literary history as the epitome of the brilliance, madness, and manipulativeness of a person suffering from manic-depression. Eugenides' description of Leonard's mood swings, interior monologue, self destructive behavior, attempts at self-medicating, and ability to ensnare others in the morass of his illness, are a wonder to behold. This is writing at its finest. The reader senses he is inside Leonard's head, torn between empathy and outrage.

I'll say no more about the other marriage plot, the one that moves this story, and kept me talking to myself as I read. Do yourself a favor readers, if you've never tried Eugenides, this book may speak to you. I found it to be a remarkable snapshot of a particular time and place.

No comments: