The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (4th Estate, 2011)
The come-on on the cover promised me “One Day with George Eliot thrown in”, and I loved One Day (who doesn’t? Well, maybe some people, but they’re wrong, obviously). So, coupled with the fact the Eugenides comes with a Pulitzer Prize attached, I thought this novel would be a sure thing. Instead, I find myself wrestling with my reservations when it comes to The Marriage Plot.
What is this book, really? At times I wondered if Eugenides had decided he ought to get some mileage out of the literary theory and theology he’d acquired through hard-won effort (and as anyone who has spent their university days reading Barthes and Derrida, à Kempis and Augustine knows, this is not lazy-day-by-the-fire kind of reading), and so he constructed a plot to hang his knowledge on. That’s intellectual vanity not story-telling. But let’s overlook the theory, because if nothing else it was a kind of Lit Crit 101 revision course, and it’s nice to keep your skills up.
So, again, what is this book? Certainly it is not One Day. It lacks the warmth, the humour, the flawed but recognisable characters, the sure touch for the little things that place a novel firmly in our own past and root it there with a wistful poignancy. Instead, Eugenides’ three main characters, Madeleine, the privileged WASP, and her two ill-suited suitors, Mitchell (a theology student and mostly unrequited lover) and Leonard (a scientist and looney) drag us through their mistakes, selfishness, and petty vanities with a restlessness that is never endearing.
The university-based narrative book-ends the story: we start off on graduation day, drift through a few lost years of travelogue (Paris, Calcutta, Monaco, New England), and end up with Madeleine remaking her shattered life at a conference and approaching the beckoning halls of academe. But unlike David Lodge or Lucky Jim, there’s no knowing, sardonic love/hate relationship with university life here, just hollowness and intellectual impotence.
The love story, if you can call it that, is the 19th century marriage plot seen through the prism of post-modernism, but its mental-health sub-plot adds an overly disjunctive darkness. Personally, I despised the self-obsessed Leonard and his stupid, selfish manipulativeness – of his treatment, drugs, doctors, family, friends, and lovers. Every minute our heroine spent with him was a minute too long, and reviewers (New York Post) who think this book tell us “what it is like to be young, idealistic, in pursuit of true love” must be wearing rose-tinted spectacles when it comes to the realities of mental illness.
If you want a whirlwind tour of modern semiotics, religious thought from Augustine to James, and 19th century crinolines-and-cynicism, you might like this book. It’s basically well-written, well-plotted, and readable, but the characters are essentially shallow and cipher-like, and I, for one, didn’t really care where the undercurrents of their interwoven relationships would finally take them.
A pile of books has been steadily growing by my computer. It’s the “I must put this on my Folio list” pile, which after months of inactivity is clearly a near-abject failure – except, I suppose, insofar as I have not stopped reading the books, only writing about them. In my defence, and without going into any unnecessary detail, I’ve been busy. But now, the holidays are here and I have another list – the extremely long list of things I’ve should have done, haven’t, and now will. A reading update is one of them.
Since my last post (in March) I have read a very miscellaneous, some might say random, selection of fiction. Some of it has been absolutely dire, some of it merely mediocre. It’s not that my judgment has gone out the window – I blame in on The Seven Stars, our village pub, which has come up with the brilliant idea of a book exchange. They’ve built a couple of bookshelves into some nooks and loaded them up with books the bookworm publican no longer wants; everyone is invited to browse and take what they want, leaving a donation for a local charity and dropping in some of their own cast-offs another day. A brilliant idea, except that every time I go to the pub (disclaimer: not often), I come home with a supply of books which in other circumstances I probably would never read. I’m yet waiting to strike gold this way, but live hopefully.
So, over the last three months I have read the following offerings from the pub, and alas, all of them only deserve micro-reviews:
Ruth Rendell, One Across, Two Down
Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven
Susan Fletcher, Eve Green
Jodi Picoult, Sing You Home
Beryl Bainbridge, An Awfully Big Adventure
On the other hand, I also read these (purchases rather than lucky dips), which deserve more of a write-up. Yes, they were Ones I Liked.
Andrew Miller, Pure
S.J. Watson, Before I Go to Sleep
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot
Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child
Jeannette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal
I’ll try to lift my game with a handful of reviews over the next week or so.
Julian Barnes finally and deservedly won the 2011 Man Booker Prize with this novel, the compact and sinewy work of a mature artist at the height of his power. I read it – quickly, because it is hardly more than a novella in length – and then, after a brief pause for reflection on its depths, immediately turned it over and started again. Seldom does a novel command a second reading in this way, and still less often does one deliver on that re-reading.
I remember, in no particular order:
The title of the book itself is enigmatic. Does it signify that there is sense (common sense, good sense) in making an ending of things, at whatever cost? Or is it that the best we should hope for in matters of human life is that they come to some kind of a conclusion, the ‘sense of an ending’, rather than a real and final one?
Tony Webster’s journey back through his memories as he seeks to reconstruct past experiences into present knowledge is measured and subtle. This book is a meditation on time and maturity, misunderstanding and understanding, on youth and love and loss and courage. It is powerful and disconcerting. The enigma of the plot is resolved, with masterful handling of the suspense, but questions remain, and the book is all the more powerful for that. This is a fine work that will bear many re-readings.
This novel sits somewhat awkwardly between literary fiction and popular romance. Tatler called this Great War love story “Birdsong for the new millennium”, but all this book really has in common with Sebastian Faulks’ peerless masterpiece is its setting and the evocation of the special, particular horrors of that war. In fairness, Young does excel in her description of the visceral, personal, pointless catastrophes of the trenches, but the pre-war years are formulaic. Honest, poor, but ambitious Riley encounters the privileged but stifled, free-spirited Nadine in Kensington Gardens, which becomes their own personal No-Man’s Land. Their friendship and affection grows against the odds and across time. With the war comes loss, learning, sacrifice, and love.
The most interesting part of the book comes after half of Riley’s face is blown off in the trenches. He is sent back to England, to a hospital in Sidcup where doctors led by Major Gillies (a historical figure) were making the first forays into facial reconstruction. Essentially, the novel at this point turns into a history of the birth of plastic surgery, and as such it is quite fascinating.
Young underpins this new direction in the story by chronicling the parallel narrative of an empty-headed, empty-hearted, stay-at-home officer’s wife. Julia has nothing but her looks to value herself by, and she is terrified of losing both of her beauty and her husband’s love. Her story takes us through the darkness of early cosmetic procedures, ultimately with disastrous results. While the plastic surgeons recreated faces and hopes in Sidcup, the cosmetic aestheticians consulted by Julia prey on her fears, corrupting both her inward and outward beauty.
My Dear ends, as expected, with the triumph of true love, but also with a sense of real hope and affirmation. It also leaves the reader with a surprise education in the birth of modern cosmetic surgery and a new respect for the pioneers of modern medicine, and for that it is worth reading.
I’m not sure if it’s a good idea for my very first Folio review to be a controversial one, especially as I know this book arouses passionate emotions in many readers. The front cover told me it was “majestic, utterly compelling, tremendous [and] a heart-stopping read”, and as this opinion was attributed to the Independent on Sunday, a normally measured newspaper, I decided to overlook the chick-lit-style artwork and give it a go. Inside and online, the plaudits were everywhere: “incredibly moving”, “my book of the year”, and so on. Perhaps accordingly I hoped for too much, but ultimately I found this book very disappointing.
Will is rendered quadraplegic in a freak accident, Lou has a damaged past but a big-hearted family. It’s the old story of Mr Grumpy meets Little Miss Sunshine with life-changing consequences for all (The Secret Garden, anyone? Little Lord Fauntleroy? Pollyanna?) Of course, the twist is that JoJo Moyes brings her narrative bang up-to-date by situating it around the contemporary “right to die” debate and giving us an ending we wouldn’t find in those children’s books of old (though I won’t spoil it for anyone who does want to read it). Nonetheless, I found the characterisation generally shallow, semaphored by descriptions of outward appearances, while inner change is marked by trite devices: as Will responds to Lou’s “whistle a happy tune” demeanour, he perks up his appearance with a shave and haircut. Location also plays an important role in the narrative, but again the symbolism verges on the banal. The dark heart of the Lou’s past lies inside a maze, unsuccessful outings are literally stuck in the mud, Lou lives and works at the base of the castle mound but as her relationship flowers, late in the story, she finally ascends it. And apparently true romance requires a tropical island idyll, no matter how implausible.
I felt manipulated by this story and quite cross when I finished it. Cross and manipulated because, damn it, it did bring tears to my eyes at a couple of points. But I could see right through how it was doing it, and I didn’t like that. Read this book if you like a good sob story, you don’t mind banal prose too much, and you could benefit from a cut-out-and-keep guide to coping with disabilities. I’m sorry, but in my opinion, the cover artist did pitch it right after all.