Sunday, November 20, 2011

10 things I love about Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot

The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact…

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

The Plot. Launched into the real world in 1982 from an Ivy League cocoon, three young adults transform as they pursue love, work and religion. 
Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus and Leonard Bankheads’ coming-of-age chronicle begins on the morning of graduation, backtracks to their original meetings and subsequent connecting and disconnecting at Brown and then plunges forward into the first year out.
As the bildungsroman begins, Mitchell’s nursing a long crush on Madeleine while Madeleine in turn, has fallen for Leonard and Leonard, it turns out, has fallen apart.   Then Leonard, Madeleine and Mitchell are off trailing their college majors behind them like tattered blankets. They try to embody, to put into personal practice, what they learned in college. But reading about God, marriage and science is not the same as believing, committing to marriage or curing a devastating illness.
Mitchell , a religion major,  backpacks through  Europe and India eventually volunteering at Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, where his devotion to the Christ in each of us, including the sick and dying  is deeply tested.
 Madeleine, an English major focusing on Victorian novels, is extending her honors thesis into an article on whether the marriage plot  ̀a la Jane Austen, the Brontés and Henry James is still possible --  as she  tests the notion of modern marriage itself by moving  in with Leonard.
               Leonard, a biologist, gets a job. He lands a position at a prestigious biology lab in Provincetown where he does grunt work for famous scientists. Instead of focusing on the lab’s yeast cells, he experiments on himself, weaning himself off medication to find just the right level of hypomania –  that highly focused, highly energized, creative and visionary state.
The Reader.  Madeleine is bitten by the book bug at an early age. Her childhood wallpaper has illustrations from the works of Ludwig Bemelmans of her namesake, the French school girl.  Madeleine is mad for books, the titles of which the narrator tells us would label her – like some bookshelf version of a Myers Briggs personality test -- or a DSM (the psychiatric manual) -- “incurably romantic.” Part scholar, part caretaker, unaware of her own allure,  she walks into a Victorian novel of her own making: “It turned out that Madeleine had a madwoman in the attic: it was her six-foot-three boyfriend.” 
The Lunatic.  I confess I too would have fallen for Leonard, the unpredictable and dazzling oddball , who spouts surprising facts and  ebulliently entertains with amazing ideas.  In fact, as a college student a decade earlier I did, except his name was Donald; he also later struggled with the incredible energies and personal devastation mood disorders bring on. Similarly anchored by a staid but slightly boring upbringing, it’s was as easy for me as it was for Madeleine to mistake madness for whimsy, impulsivity for spontaneity, mania for exuberance.   “Incurable romantics” are drawn to such charms.
The Lover.  Hopelessly pining for Madeleine and God, Mitchell has more yearning than any one individual deserves.  Mitchell thrives on striving for love and faith, qualities that seem to drop out of the sky to others – like the Jesus freak he meets at the American Express  office who asks him if he’s saved and hands him a pocket New Testament.  His secret love for Madeleine is matched only by his secret quest for God. He takes clandestine catechism classes before leaving for Europe. “Unbeknown to anyone, as secretly as if he were buying drugs or visiting  a massage parlor Mitchell had been attending weekly meeting with Father Mitchell, at St. Mary’s the Catholic church at the end of Monroe Street.”
The Parents.  God bless Phyllida and Alton. They never say, “We told you so.”  Phyllida and Alton negotiate the uncomfortable positions of wanting to advise and help, but not interfere, in the lives of adult children. They warn, but do not prevent. Once problems arise Alton’s pure reason patiently  and predictably  apprehends, presents alternatives and seeks solutions while all Madeleine can do is cry.  There are two other sets of interesting parents as well.  The best single defining line comes when Leonard’s mother is confronted by Phyllida about Leonard’s illness. Her response “What illness?” followed by its dismissal “Leonard’s always  been theatrical,” reveals all we need to know.
The Acquaintances.  The cast of roommates, classmates, professors, coworkers and fellow pilgrims that accompany the threesome on their respective quests is as amusing as the protagonists. Each is distinctly drawn and acts as antagonist. Some minor characters cause major changes exemplifying how those we bump into on our journey may make strong impressions, or cause major course changes. My favorite is Scarsdale Claire, the women’s studies major on her junior year abroad in Paris.  She challenges Mitchell on patriarchal religions.  Her take: “The whole institutionalized form of Western religion is all about telling women they’re inferior, unclean, and subordinate to men. And if you actually believe in any of that stuff I don’t know what to say.” She gets worse when she discovers Mitchell is reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, as a way to celebrate Paris. If we apply the Myers-Briggs, DSM bookshelf strategy, Claire might diagnose a Hemingway reader as “male chauvinist pig.”
The Books.  This book is chockful of other books and reading lists: Novels, Religious mysticism and Semiotics. In the opening chapters, Madeleine takes classes in Victorian marriage novels as well as Semiotics – that branch of literary criticism which brings new attention to the relationship between the reader and  the book.   Eugenides was able to make me feel like a high school junior again, inadequately schooled and ill read as my English teacher cited book after book I should (have) read. This feeling got worse, not better, in college and graduate school. I spent the next 20 or so years catching up before I caught on – No proper 16 year-old had read all the high-brow titles he suggested. I was so busy working my way through classics, I didn’t rediscover the pleasures of low-brow genres until my mid 30s.
      Simultaneously Eugenides made me feel hungry for rereading and new reading. I started composing  lists. Reread Jane Austen and maybe the Brontés.  Intriqued by the notion of books as a way to type or diagnose character  – a recurring motif -- I asked myself what books were on my shelf that might have defined me at that age. Among others, I thought of The Magus by John Fowles. If I reread that maybe I would remember why I liked it, what it said to me then, maybe I would know who I once was.
The Disease (the way it’s portrayed). Having surrounded myself since young adulthood with those who experience the highs and lows of various brain disorders, I learned a great deal about uni-polar and bipolar depression, symptoms, and the course of the diseases.   Here I am in awe.   Though each case of bipolar disorder plays out differently according to one’s personality, Eugenides nails bi-polar disorder’s general characteristics with Leonard’s own quirks.  Those  in the literary know may argue over whether Leonard is based on David Foster Wallace  because he wears a bandana and chews tobacco (see Slate blog Browbeat 10/10 /2011), but  I read each of Leonard’s oddities and incidents  for their verity as symptomatic or characteristic. (Maybe Leonard takes to wearing a bandana to deal with a sweaty brow—a side effect of medication.)  Take mania alone: Excessive phone calls: check. Sleeplessness: check.  Chewing tobacco and constant smoking: check.  Charm: Check. Quick wit and unpredictable off the wall statements: check. Hypersexuality:  check. Impulsivity, including impulsive spending : check. Inappropriate, uncomfortable behavior: check. A scene in which Leonard buys bags and bags of salt water taffy and peppers the 16-year-old clerk tending the store with too-personal questions is particularly unsettling.
I also admire Eugenides’ descriptions of the side effects of medication.   News reports and neighborhood gossip often include side, sometimes snide, remarks saying the subject went off medication—leaving those of us who don’t take this stuff to think this is sufficient explanation and shake our heads.  Eugenides gives us the reasons people quit medication. The shakes, weight gain, metallic taste, loss of libido and a cement mixer head with which one can barely think, are hardly desirable qualities.  Medication’s side effects are horrendous  --  making takers question whether the cure is worse than the disease. The side effects seem particularly cruel  for those 20 somethings who are simultaneously coming down with a disease and  should be bursting with youthful energy.
The Resolution.  I couldn’t imagine how this book might end and leave me satisfied.  I could imagine several endings that might leave me dismissive and even angry.  Eugenides did not disappoint or annoy.  He kept me guessing to the very last page – and deeply pleased, after the final sentence. Just right.
Jeffrey Eugenides.   After Middlesex I Iooked forward to another brilliant and satisfying novel. But for the first 100 or so pages, I wasn’t convinced The Marriage Plot was it. I fought a little.   I thought  “I’m too old for a coming of age book.”  “I don’t want to read about college or the young and the privileged. “ But as the Eugenides’ imagination embodied and gave to idle thoughts local habitations and names, I grew smitten. Laced with allusions to other books, funny, energetic and charming The Marriage Plot won me over.  It made me feel squirmy and uncomfortable, but I never wanted to stop reading. Eugenides can make emerging adulthood seem as painful, chaotic and humiliating as junior high school, but we never dismiss the endearing , important earnestness of youth.
          Shakespeare noted lunatics, lovers and poets (or writers) share characteristic temperaments. Semiotic thinkers and incurable romantic alike might add readers --   like Madeleine. Like me.      


  1. Barbara, this seduced me. I promised myself I wouldn't pay for books on my new Kindle, settling instead for their free books and also library e-book loans. Your review might make me break my promise sooner rather than later!! Can't wait to read this. I love J.E. I love you as well. xoxo

  2. I was underwhelmed by The Virgin Suicides, but maybe Eugenides has matured since then. This sounds interesting.

  3. I love the feel of holding a real book and Amazon had it at the right price and broken in. What more can I ask for, the book is broken in and ready to go. It was delivered to the house in a few days.