Archive for May, 2012

THE MARRIAGE PLOT by JEFFREY EUGENIDES


If you are male and ¬†went to university in the eighties, this book is likely to be very relevant and familiar. So much so one bookgrouper said – i loved it, this is my life, i lived this. Luckily for me I’m in that category, so my feeling about it was similar. However if you are older, younger or female, or didn’t go to university, I’m not sure it will have the same autobiographical feel.

The great thing about it for blokes of my era and background was that it covered, in some detail, a number of issues that have had an impact on our lives, either at uni or subsequently via our friends and family and the women we have known. it starts off with french post modern feminism, then moves on to depression, and then to religion.

I, like most of my peers, have had friends, lovers, and family heavily affected by these things, and through that they have affected me.

The way the author deals with these things is through the marriage plot of the title. The marriage plot is a reference to 19th century novels of the jane austen type. The book is a self conscious attempt to write a jane austen novel for the 21st century. Instead of an english manor house in the 1800’s its set in an american university in the 1980’s, but it still has the classic austen heroine, madelaine, tossing up between two suitors. Austen’s darkly handsome Mr Darcy is played by the charismatic manic depressive leonard, while the sensible ‘good match’ is mitchell.

Not being female I can’t be sure of the accuracy of the maddy character. she certainly reflects how i thought women were back in the 80s, but i definitely wouldn’t claim that my impressions bore any resemblance to how they really were. In contrast the mitchell and leonard characters really rang true.

Some of the minor characters were also great nostalgia trips for me. In particular when mitchell sets off for the then obligatory post-university backpacking trip through europe he meets claire, his mates girlfriend, in paris. Claire, like so many women of the time is in to the french post feminism thing. Mitchell says of her

Under the pressure of becoming a critic of patriarchy, Claire uncritically accepted every fashionable theory that came her way

Mitchell also has a few great lines about himself. For example, crying alone in an Athens hotel he says of himself

his awkwardness, his charm, his shyness, everything that made him almost but not quite the guy for her. the letter felt like a verdict on his entire life so far, sentencing him to end up here, lying on a bed, alone, in an athenian hotel room, too weighed down by self-pity to go out and climb the goddam acropolis.

On his first visit to Maddy’s family home as a first year uni student, he is amazed by the difference between her educated upper middle class surroundings and those of his family. he remembers seeing ice cream in the freezer

not a greedy half gallon, as they had a mitchell’s house in michigan, not cheap ice milk, not vanilla, chocolate or strawberry but a flavour he had never dreamed of before

I remember those experiences or things very like them.

There are also some great scenes between the depressed leonard and the dutiful girlfriend maddy that are very familiar. Reading them i felt i had seen them played over and over between numerous couples i know – the bloke is neatly manipulating the woman by referring to his problems all the time, while she chooses not to assert her needs, and he seems blind to the idea that she might have any, beyond looking after him.

In some ways i think the really clever and subtle thing about the book is the way it ends. It really ties together all the key themes, and for me at least, illustrates the lessons that people of my era learnt from living through those times, and those ideas.

  • The Austen marriage plot is updated to 21st century standards because maddy does not make an austenesque choice between options, she finds her own option.
  • Even though Mitchell is a non-believer who majors in religious studies because he wants to find god, in the end he realises there is a god that he has been devoted to, and that he has to give her up.
  • Likewise Leonard finds a way to spare her from a life sentence with his depression.

The way all these strands are resolved and tied together is not only clever but quite useful in terms of what the Sandman – another character from that era – might have called ‘advice for the unsuccessful and desperate’.

Even so, prior to this ending, it was tedious at times in same way Austen is tedious at times. Like Austen it has pages and pages of what we now call the self talk of the characters, and the characters are not very extraordinary and not in very extraordinary situations. While this can be good as its familiar and relevant, it can get very dull, especially if, like most of us, you have already read a lot of those books.
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May 12, 2012 at 7:32 am Leave a comment


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