Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review: The Marriage Plot

It's the end of the month and so time for my review of this month's pick, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.

For me, this book was all about the title. Immediately, Eugenides was comparing his story to the traditional idea of the marriage plot novels of the 19th century. It was even more interesting when you consider that his characters were conscious of this comparison - each of the three had high expectations when it came to romantic relationships. The story really came together for me in the last third of the novel, when all three characters finally broke away from preconceived notions of what their lives should be and went with what their lives actually are, accepting themselves and their loved ones in the process. It was a gradual acceptance and Eugenides unveils this change in a subtle way.

The main critical point of this novel, I think, is the Leonard Bankhead character. Though Eugenides insists that it is not based on David Foster Wallace, the bandana-wearing, tobacco-chewing, manic depressive Bankhead seems to be similar in a number of key areas.Zsuzsi Gartner's review in The Globe & Mail expounds on this further:
"In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Eugenides rather disingenuously denied the character was inspired by or even bore a resemblance to Wallace. If it’s a homage, why deny it? And if not, what is he playing at here? Is he making a meta-fictional point while pretending not to by writing a main character who so eerily resembles in almost every way one of the leading postmodernist writers of the 20th and 21st century? I find this disturbing." 
The middle section of the novel goes into manic depression in extreme detail, both on the effects of the sufferer and of those around him. It is a key piece of the novel, and I feel that Eugenides does it justice without being exploitative or sensational, deliberate Wallace comparison notwithstanding. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It wasn't groundbreaking, it wasn't shocking, but it was a great read by a great writer. I found the three main characters - Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell - to be realistic in their faults as well as their qualities, without being cynical or tragic. (It seems to be a misconception that "realistic" characters must also be jaded and bitter - i.e. Jonathan Franzen). Eugenides's connection to 19th century writers such as Henry James or George Eliot is clear, and he adds to the tradition of the marriage plot, updating it for the 20th century. I agree with Gartner that "The Marriage Plot can be read innocently enough as a modern romance about books and love and goodness, or as something tricksier, depending on what you bring to the text from outside." 

Please add your own review to the comments section - I would love to hear what you think!

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