The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Published 2011    set in the early 1980s at Brown University in Rhode Island






Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights. After getting out of Semiotics 211, Madeleine fled to the Rockefeller Library, down to B Level, where the stacks exuded a vivifying smell of mold, and grabbed something – anything, The House of Mirth, Daniel Deronda – to restore herself to sanity. How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a 19th century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world. Then, too, there were lots of weddings in Wharton and Austen. There were all kinds of irresistible gloomy men.

The next Thursday, Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design. She’d gone back to her glasses. For the second week in a row, Leonard didn’t show up.



observations: I’ve not read his other books, and apparently this one is very different. It was certainly readable (I polished off its 400 pages over the course of a long journey) and not objectionable, but I was surprised by its earnest shallowness and its similarity to David Nicholls’ massive bestseller, One Day, published a year or so earlier and then made into a film with Anne Hathaway. There’s no question of plagiarism, but it’s odd that they coincide in plot. Both men were born in the 1960s, and I want to ask Eugenides, in particular, why are you writing about undergraduate students, and then their post-graduation travels and troubles? They are about as interesting as real-live students would be if you asked them to tell you about their courses. The book is full of long descriptions of classes the protagonists take, and they certainly made this reader very impatient. (I did wonder if this was a book that Eugenides wrote, or perhaps started, when he was nearer the age of the characters…)

The extract above explains neatly the way in which literature studies had changed in that time, and says it very convincingly: but then Eugenides goes on and on and on about it, diving into theology and other religious studies as well. (‘What if you died and went to heaven and all the people you met there were people you didn’t like?’) The book kept nearly turning into something more interesting, and there were lovely bits.
The experience of watching Leonard get better was like reading certain difficult books. It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.
This is a random couple of sentences, never referred to again:
During the Cold War, Irina Kolnoskova, second ballerina of the Kirov Ballet, had stayed in hiding at the Pleshettes’ house, in Riverdale, after defecting. Larry, only fifteen at the time, had ferried champagne splits and graham crackers to the ballerina’s bedside, where Kolnoskova alternately wept, watched game shows, or coaxed him to massage her young, spectacularly deformed feet.
I think that’s the novel I actually wanted to read.

However, Eugenides is very good on clothes. Madeleine, ‘failed Bohemian’, realizes that being out of college means she can now dress comfortably like a Kennedy on Cape Cod: earlier her boyfriend criticized the way she wore a vintage bowling shirt. Leonard looks ‘large and shaggy, like a Sendak creature’:




The sweater at the top is not Norwegian, but it is a design by the great knitting guru of the 1980s, Kaffe Fassett, styled fully in the manner of the era.

Daniel Deronda has featured on the blog, twice. Clothes in Books did a deep and fully-researched entry dealing with literary theory here. (Note the date.)

Comments

  1. Moira - You make an interesting observation about 'earnest shallowness' (I do love that term!). This sounds more like a 'slice of life' kind of novel than anything else (perhaps I'm wrong). I have to say that when I read that sort of novel, I like character depth and evolution. Still, it's good to hear it's an enjoyable read. And I do like that sweater.

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    1. I think it was a harmless, enjoyable read, but I was expecting more from such a highly-praised author. But I'm grateful to him for the chance to go searching through those 80s fashions!

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  2. Since I need some mystery in my fiction, or something equally compelling, this doesn't appeal. But still an interesting post.

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    1. No, don't break away from your lists for this one, Tracy.

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  3. I've toyed with this book when I have seen it a few times when browsing, but always put it back. Even though you enjoyed it, I don't feel he's an author I am dying to read. I've read Nicholl's One Day and enjoyed it.
    Hoping I won't be getting a jumper anything like that one for Christmas!

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    1. What I said to Tracy: in your case, don't break the embargo for this one....

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  4. While in Norway last year we saw lots of lovely snowflake sweaters by Dale of Norway. When I searched through Google there were lots of images of the sweaters but few being worn. One image of a woman wearing a Dale snowflake sweater is at http://t2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRpvVFFbBrXIm4mG4l_VM8Yhe3OBkWhOserKdTcDCxoG7QOtEC4.

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    1. I'm very impressed that you're contributing to the fashion side of the blog, Bill, well done! I took a look at the sweater, it is very attractive and you are lucky to have visited Norway. I do much prefer pictures of clothes with people in them, as you seem to have guessed.

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  5. A book about 80s college life, probably written largely at the time? Slice of life? Lots of trivia about clothes?

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    1. What's it reminding you of? Donna Tartt?

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  6. I highly recommend this book. Wonderful character studies. I love all his books.

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  7. Oh Kaffe! Takes me back.
    So you haven't read Middlesex? I listened to that book years ago and still remember the experience with pleasure. Laughing out loud in places, to the astonishment of those around me. I should give this a whirl, but before I relive Middlesex, in case it doesn't delight me as much.

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    1. Kaffe indeed, our 80s life. I went to a talk by him once, it was crowded out, he had superstar status for a while. He was great fun, but horrified us all by revealing that he didn't really knit himself, he always got other people to do it for him. Just the designs then...

      No, haven't read anything else by him, and wasn't particularly tempted after reading this one. But perhaps I should. I think B has Middlesex.

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  8. I enjoyed this novel immensely. Eugenides is impressive, handling the internal dialogues of both Madeleine and Mitchell with skillful intensity. Definitely his best novel yet, this is a highly enjoyable and compelling read from the first to the last page.

    Marlene
    Info site for Fishing Lodge Alaska Website

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    1. Thanks for visiting Marlene - I'm glad you enjoyed the book, perhaps more than I did. You make me feel I should read it again.

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