email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""Who Could That Be at This Hour?"3 Willows4th of July99 DaysA Beautiful MindA Change in AltitudeA Corner Of The UniverseA Frog ThingA Great and Terrible BeautyA People's History of ChristianityA Question of BloodA Slight Trick of the MindA Step Toward FallingA Thousand Miles from NowhereA Tragic Kind of WonderfulA Voyage Long and StrangeA Wedding in December Abraham LincolnAcross the River and Into the TreesAfter DarkAgainst EmpathyAgainst Medical AdviceAll the Bright PlacesAll the Way HomeAll Unquiet ThingsAlphavilleAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAmerica AmericaAmong the DepartedAn EducationAn Object of BeautyAnatomy of a MisfitAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaBad BoyBad RatsBarbara the Slut and Other PeopleBeach RoadBeat the ReaperBeauty QueensBed of RosesBefore I DieBefore I FallBefore the FrostBig BrotherBiteBlack Elk SpeaksBlameBleed for MeBlonde FaithBlood, Salt, WaterBody SurfingBog ChildBoneMan's DaughtersBoomsdayBorder CrossingBorn Standing UpBoys Are DogsBoys Will Put You on a Pedestal (So They Can Look Up Your Skirt)Brava, ValentineBreak Through PainBreathingBridge of SighsBrief Interviews with Hideous MenBrutalBy BloodC StreetCalm Beneath the WavesCanadaCellCemetery DanceChange Your Brain, Change Your LifeCheeverCinnamon KissCleopatraClose Your EyesCompulsionCross CountryCyborgasmDakotaDancing at the Shame PromDarkest FearDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDead EvenDear Zoe,Death Without TenureDeceptionDefending JacobDefine NormalDeliriumDevil in the DetailsDiscovering Pig MagicDisturbing GroundDivergentDivine JusticeDivisaderoDoing ItDown the Rabbit HoleDr. Andrew Weil's Mindbody ToolkitDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDriftlessEven Dogs in the WildEvery Exquisite ThingEvery Little Thing in the WorldEye ContactFaith, Hope, and Ivy JuneFaking NormalFalling ManFamily FirstFans of the Impossible LifeFear of the DarkFellsideField of BloodFile Under: 13 Suspicious IncidentsFiregirlForest of the PygmiesFortunate SonFraudFreak the MightyFree RefillsFull Steam Ahead!Furiously HappyGenerosityGenomeGetting a Good Night's SleepGetting the Love You Want Audio CompanionGiftedGirl in TranslationGod Is DeadGod Is Not OneGods and BeastsGoing BovineGranny Torrelli Makes SoupGraysonHappy FamilyHappy Mutant Baby PillsHarmlessHe's Just Not That Into YouHealthy AgingHeartbeatHeftHigh HeatHolidays on IceHot MilkHotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel WorldHotels of North AmericaHow a Gunman Says GoodbyeHow Full Is Your Bucket?How Successful People ThinkHow to Build a HouseHow to See Yourself As You Really AreHow to Set a Fire and WhyHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurt Go HappyHypnography for MenHypnography for WomenI Am Not Joey PigzaI Can See YouI Drink for a ReasonI Feel Bad About My NeckI'd Know You AnywhereIdiot AmericaIf a Tree Falls at Lunch PeriodIf I StayIf You StayImagine Me GoneIn ZanesvilleInfinite JestInheritanceInnocentInside the O'BriensInvincibleInvisibleIt Takes OneJennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, ElizabethJust LifeKiss of Broken GlassKissing Ted Callahan (And Other Guys)Leaping BeautyLies My Girlfriend Told MeLife After LifeLife InterruptedLife of PiLife StrategiesLisey's StoryLitLittle Black LiesLittle ScarletLive For Your Listening PleasureLiving Your DreamLong Shadow of Small GhostsLooking for BobowiczLost in the ForestLove Is a Mix TapeLove Times ThreeLove, AubreyLowboyMadappleMade For YouMagical ThinkingMagnificenceMaliceMan in the WoodsMeditation in a New York MinuteMeetings with a Remarkable ManMiddlesexMind MappingMindfulness for BeginnersMirrorMaskMischlingMissing PresumedMolly Moon's Incredible Book of HypnotismMommies Who DrinkMunich AirportMy AbandonmentMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Name Is RedMy One Hundred AdventuresMy Sister's KeeperName All the AnimalsNelson Mandela's Favorite African FolktalesNemesisNever Let Me GoNight FilmNina: AdolescenceNinety DaysNone of the AboveNurtureShockObjects of My AffectionOlive's OceanOn Chesil BeachOne Flew Over The Cuckoo's NestOutliersPaint It BlackPanicParadise LodgeParanoiaPeace Is Every BreathPeople Who Eat DarknessPharmakonPictures of Hollis WoodsPictures of YouPilgrim at Tinker CreekPlaying with FirePlease Stop Laughing at UsPositivityPresumed InnocentPretty Girl-13Prisoner of Night and FogPuddlejumpersPunkzillaRacing the DevilReady for AnythingRebuttalRequiemRescueRevolutionary RoadRoomRun for Your LifeSay You're SorryScatSchool of FearSeason to TasteSecrets of a Passionate MarriageSee How SmallSeeds of HopeSex and SpiritSide Effects May VarySilencedSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens AgendaSix Impossible ThingsSkelligSleeping BeautySnowSo Brave, Young and HandsomeSolitaireSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful to YouSourlandSquirrel Seeks ChipmunkStill MissingStory of a GirlStress ReliefSupreme CourtshipSurviving OpheliaSwimming to ElbaSworn to SilenceSymptoms of Being HumanTeaseTeaseTell the Truth, Shame the DevilTen Minutes to RelaxTestimonyThat Old Cape MagicThe Abortionist's DaughterThe AccidentalThe Accidental BillionairesThe AdultsThe Almost MoonThe Anatomy of HopeThe Art of ChoosingThe Art of Exceptional LivingThe Artist of DisappearanceThe Average American MarriageThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe Beat Goes OnThe Best AwfulThe Big LoveThe Boat RockerThe Book of JoeThe Book of LiesThe Book of the DeadThe Boy Who DaredThe Boyfriend ListThe Brass VerdictThe Breakout PrincipleThe Burden of ProofThe Case for GodThe Case of the Case of Mistaken IdentityThe Cemetery BoysThe Chosen OneThe ClosersThe Consciousness PlagueThe Conspiracy ClubThe Cuckoo's CallingThe Day I Ate Whatever I WantedThe Dead Fathers ClubThe Death of Bunny MunroThe Devotion of Suspect XThe Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-BanksThe Diviner's TaleThe DollmakerThe Dressmaker of Khair KhanaThe Dynamite RoomThe Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round ThingsThe EndThe Erotic EdgeThe Essential KamasutraThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe Forgotten GirlsThe Geography of You and MeThe Gift of an Ordinary DayThe Gingerbread GirlThe Girl in 6EThe Girl in the GardenThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's NestThe Girl Who Played with FireThe Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Grief of OthersThe Grim GrottoThe Guise of AnotherThe Guy Not TakenThe Heart of YogaThe Hearts of MenThe Heretic's DaughterThe Ice QueenThe Ice TwinsThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe InseparablesThe InterestingsThe Keeper of Lost CausesThe Keeper of Lost ThingsThe Kings of LondonThe Language God TalksThe Language of SecretsThe Language Of YogaThe Last ChildThe Last MileThe Last Time We Say GoodbyeThe Male BrainThe Man from BeijingThe Man in My BasementThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Map of True PlacesThe Marriage PlotThe Memory Book The Mermaids SingingThe Ministry of Special CasesThe MuralistThe Museum of InnocenceThe Mystery of the Third LucretiaThe Myth of LazinessThe NarrowsThe Necessary Death of Lewis WinterThe New YorkersThe NewleywedsThe NixThe NursesThe Opposite of InvisibleThe Other Side of the StoryThe Outcasts of 19 Schuyler PlaceThe Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeThe PastThe Penultimate PerilThe PostcardThe Pregnant WidowThe Promise of a LieThe PyramidThe Qi Healing KitThe ReaderThe Republican BrainThe Rule of FourThe Rules of SurvivalThe Savage CityThe ScarecrowThe Second GirlThe Secret Life of BeesThe Secret of Lost ThingsThe Secret ScriptureThe Secret SpeechThe Secret Wisdom of the EarthThe ShallowsThe Shock of the FallThe Silent BoyThe SisterThe Sound of Broken GlassThe SpindlersThe Story HourThe Story of Beautiful GirlThe Sudden Arrival of ViolenceThe Survivors ClubThe Sweet Relief of Missing ChildrenThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the PieThe Tail of Emily WindsnapThe Tenth JusticeThe Thing About JellyfishThe Third AngelThe TouristThe Treasure Map of BoysThe Trouble with Goats and SheepThe Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraThe Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia MossThe UnquietThe Unseen WorldThe View from SaturdayThe WaveThe Weed That Strings the Hangman's BagThe Weight of the NationThe Whole TruthThe WilloughbysThe Witch's BoyThe Wolves of AndoverThe Words We Live ByThe Wrong Side of GoodbyeThe Year of the FloodThe Year That FollowsThe Yin Yoga KitThirteen Reasons WhyThis Beautiful LifeThis Body of DeathThis Book Is Not Good For YouThis Full HouseThis Is HowThose GirlsThose Who Wish Me DeadTony & SusanToo Much HappinessTooth and NailTouchTransformation TriburbiaTrue BelieverTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTwinmakerTwistedTwo Can PlayTwo Little Girls in BlueUnaccustomed EarthUnder the HarrowUnder the InfluenceUnder WildwoodUniversal HarvesterUnlessUnthinkingUp in the AirVery ValentineVisits from The Drowned GirlVoid MoonWaiting for SunriseWalkingWarWatching the DarkWhat the Dog SawWhen We Were AnimalsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhen You Reach MeWhere She WentWherever You Go, There You AreWhite HotWild AwakeWild ChildWildwoodWill They Ever Trust Us Again?Wolf in White VanWomen's Murder Club Box SetYoga SanctuaryYou Look Different in Real LifeYou Should Have KnownYou Will Know Me
Eugenides' two previous novels are smart and thought-provoking, but The Marriage Plot is his first to be so explicitly self-aware as a piece of literature, immersed in academic ideas. He tells the story of three brilliant young people, Mitchell, Leonard, and Madeleine, in their senior year at Brown University and the year following their graduation. It is set in the early 1980s, the time that Eugenides himself attended Brown, and the novelist draws on his own experience in giving details of the time and place, including the enthusiasm for literary theory that was so debated in English departments at that time. Judging from the reader reviews on Amazon.com, the heavy dose of discussion of Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and even some less well known scholars is alienating to many readers. So this is a novel for people with some tolerance of academic discussion. There is even a good amount of theology here, when Mitchell gets deep into his religious studies courses and seriously considers becoming a priest. The book may restrict itself to readers with particular background and interest, but many people have gone to college and have at least heard of a number of the authors the characters sometimes discuss. Those without the background will still be able to follow the plot, and those with the background will find the book especially interesting because it is more ambitious in its goals than most novels published this year.
Mitchell and Leonard are both in love with Maddy. She dates Leonard for much of her time in college, but they break up in their senior year. Mitchell and his friend Larry leave for a world trip soon after graduation, so he barely gets the chance to take advantage of Maddy's new single status. He writes her letters and once he returns from India, he gets to spend time with her, and their relationship is resolved.
Leonard is a biology major, but he also has a deep interest in philosophy and religion. He has a melancholy streak, but he is normally charming and erudite. Occasionally he is pompous and dismissive of others, and he is in such a phase when he splits up with Madeleine. She is distraught at their break up, and she spends her time reading Barthes as a consolation. Then she discovers that he has been admitted to a psychiatric ward because of his depression, and she rushes back to him, and they reunite. Leonard has won a position at a prestigious research institute and the two of them go there, while she works on writing that will help her get into graduate school. Their domestic life is difficult, because he is troubled and she is in a position of caring for him now that he is on medication and is in a fragile state. He is difficult to be with, and there is a major strain in their relationship. Eventually they move to New Jersey, staying with her parents, with the aim of eventually moving to Manhattan. But the prospect of the move is very frightening to Leonard, and she feels like he is making her life much more difficult than it should be. She wonders whether she should be making this sacrifice for him.
While Leonard and Madeleine are going through tumultuous swings in their relationship, Mitchell discovers the world outside America, and is most influenced by the extraordinary experiences he has in India. He is struggling to work out what he wants to do with his life. He wants to marry Madeleine, but he is also interested in becoming a monk, and avoiding all sex and longing. He is open to a religious life, yet he has not worked out how to make sense of religious belief. So his trip to India enables him, if not to find himself, then to define himself. He is a far more resilient character than Leonard, but he is just as lost. Of the three, Madeleine is the most grounded, having a supportive family, even though she often argues with her sister and father, and sometimes her mother.
The novel has at its center the graduation ceremony at Brown, showing the events leading up to it and the events following from it, sometimes going back to childhood. Often the same set of events is told from different perspectives at different points in the novel, showing how the central characters vary in their experience. We come to a better understanding of what is going on in their lives by seeing the ways in which their interests and preoccupations mold how the world seems to them.
However, this is not just a descriptive novel, because it also invites the reader to take a stance. Mitchell is a sympathetic character and it is easy to sympathize with him. Madeleine is occasionally self-indulgent, and her privileged background makes it easier to be impatient with her. But it is Leonard who really invites criticism. While clearly extremely smart, he is self-preoccupied and manipulative. He hides his mental illness from Madeleine and is demanding of her. While he does seek treatment, there is also a side of his illness he enjoys, and he is not willing to give that up. Part of his problem is his rationalizing use of Madeleine, and while it may be medical in nature, it still seems like a character flaw. Even his final act of releasing Madeleine from her responsibility for him is tinged with self-indulgence and a sense that he does not care about those who care for him.
One may wonder if Eugenides is giving Leonard a few deal here. Several commentators have commented on some superficial similarities between Leonard and the novelist David Foster Wallace; Eugenides has denied that Leonard is based on the novelist, by pointing out that in other superficial ways, the characters are quite different. Whatever the basis for the character of Leonard, he comes off as sad and hopeless, and someone that most people would want to keep at arms distance, because involvement with him would be trouble. While both Mitchell and Madeleine have very promising futures by the end of the novel, Leonard's is far more in doubt, and the reader is not inclined to even feel bad for him about this.
It is hard to say at this stage how well The Marriage Plot will stand up to future scrutiny. It runs a risk of appearing dated and overly clever, but, for now, it is a fascinating picture of American culture. It certainly compares well to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, and trounces his more recent novel Freedom, which it more closely resembles at least in its preoccupation with sex. While Franzen's insights into sex are thought-provoking, Eugenides is far more able to give his readers a complete picture of the emotional importance of sex in a relationship. While the prospect of Franzen's next novel generates an inner groan with the expectation that it will be yet another rehashing of the same set of preoccupations, we can look forward to the next novel by Eugenides with enthusiasm as he explores new themes with fresh approaches.
The performance of the unabridged audiobook by David Pittu is full of energy; Pittu keeps the characters distinct and is able to deliver even the passages that are theory-heavy with enthusiam.
Link: Review of Middlesex
© 2011 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York