And Sometimes They Were Very Sad

This is my review of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Not having reading anything by Eugenides before, I was curious to discover what has made him a Pullitzer prize-winner.

This is the story of the triangular relationship between three young Americans who meet at university in the early 1980s: Madeleine, a diligent student of English literature, but lacking in a sense of direction, falls for the brilliant, charismatic but manic depressive biologist, Leonard. Meanwhile, after a brief friendship which comes to nothing, Mitchell loves her from afar, and seeks escapism in religious theory, and a circuitous journey to India to work as a volunteer for Mother Theresa.

The novel is a modern take on the "marriage plot", seen by one of Madeleine's English professors as the dominant theme of novels up to 1900, based on the idea that women could only achieve success through marrying men, ideally with money, after which they "lived happily ever after" or endured their fate, since there was no easy escape route via divorce.

The author's technical talent is displayed through some vivid and imaginative descriptions, and his sharp ear for dialogue. The recreation of the events and attitudes of the 1980s rings true, and brings back memories for those who lived through them. Many scenes are funny or poignant. In particular, the analysis of Leonard's manic depression in its various phases strikes close to the bone and often makes for unbearably painful reading.

Ironically, it is the at times almost manic nature of the writing which weakens the structure of the novel, so that the whole may seem less than the sum of the parts. Eugenides spirals off at a tangent where his imagination leads him. For instance, in the early chapters he launches into structuralism and specific works like Barthes' "A Lover's Discourse" without considering or caring how many readers will be able or willing to follow him. In fact, I only needed to "google" for a few minutes to fill the essential gaps in my knowledge, or to check later that the custom-printed wallpaper on Madeleine's bedroom wall was based on a real set of stories about "Madeline" by Ludwig Bemelman. When it came to the genetics of yeast I just let Leonard's explanations wash over me. However, although I have learned more about literature from this book, and extended my vocabulary ("chancre", "pentiment", etc), I feel that the lengthy digressions have been at the expense of the narrative drive.

There is also the author's tendency to meander back and forth in time, which means that many important events are reported, rather than enacted, which would have made them more dramatic.

I was left feeling that I had read a series of on occasion brilliant short stories or thumbnail sketches, held together by a loose plot which at times seems to be about the pain, loss and waste caused by manic depression, although I am sure that is not meant to be the main point. If Eugenides had focused more tightly on the three main characters and developed their interactions more fully, I think I would have cared more about their dilemmas, particularly Madeleine's and Mitchell's.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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