Friday, November 11, 2011
The Marriage Plot
Now that you're finished, I'm very curious to hear your thoughts on the novel. Hmmm...what do I have to say about this book? I have a strange feeling that this might be one that grows on me, even though my initial response is call this a solid, but not spectacular, effort.
Surprisingly, I ended up liking Madeline, despite all of her dumb decisions. I don't know why...maybe because I remember how hard it was to transition from college-----> real life. When I was about to graduate, It seemed impossible that college was really going to end, and that I would have to make a "real life" for myself. I felt like my entire childhood was spent looking forward to college, and then--BAM!--it was over. To this day, I vividly remember something Eli Goldblatt (best. professor. ever.) said to me. He said, "College is a little like a circus. For you, the end is near. They're rolling up the tents. But for all these other kids, they're still here. It's hard to look around and see that they still have time left when your time is up." I also remember being cognizant of just how soft the landing was because of Teach For America. It was sort of like college all over again: built-in, ready-made friends all living in the same neighborhood and working the same jobs.
I saw that same confusion in Madeline. She didn't get into Yale, she had too much pride to go back home, what was she supposed to do next? (I wonder if this is just the curse of the English major?) She is compelled to do something rather than nothing, and so off she goes with Leonard. I did *cringe* when she married him. Her conviction that Leonard could be "saved" or "cured" was painful to read. I knew one too many women ready to throw themselves on the alter of fixing a man.
Mitchell's a good guy, and his search for faith and meaning was moving. However, it bothered me that the ending implies that his faith was really nothing more than unrequited love for Madeline. His interest in religion far predates his feelings for her, so I was a bit disappointed that the big revelation to him at the end is so pedestrian. He thinks he's desperately in love with her, and then, when he finally gets his shot at her, it's empty and meaningless. Yikes. But then again, maybe I shouldn't be surprised. Halfway through his journey to India, I really did think to myself---oh my God. Finding your faith in India---this is so cliche. This is the same as Eat, Pray, Love! The novel implies that Mitchell is just as lost as Madeline. They both suffer from the same malady: believing that love will save them and make everything whole.
When reading about illness of any kind, I always wonder how people with actual illness would respond to the fictionalized description. I'll admit that I was wary with his narration, because I wondered if Eugenides is giving a fair or accurate portrayal of manic-depression. The section where Leonard is self-medicating was hard for me to read. I was squirming with discomfort because clearly this wasn't going to end well. Either way, the section he narrates is so brief, and then he gets shown the subway door pretty ruthlessly. I didn't get what Madeline saw in him. Even at his most manic, he seemed more pretentious than loveable. But then again, when you think about it, that last sentence is true for just about every character in the book.
I don't know how believable I found the characters. Was there enough there to convince me that any of the characters were truly in love? Or is this the broader theme of the whole novel: you *think* you can know someone, but you can't. You think you can know yourself, but you don't. Interestingly, the one character who explicitly states this idea is one of the guys Michell knows in India: "Please," Rudiger said dismissively, "Let's not try to understand each other by autobiography" (313). This was an arresting idea because I think autobiography is the primary way that I know people. What other choices are there? This might be the takeaway idea of the novel for me, although I'm not exactly sure what to do with it.
The boomerang narration trick was interesting. Start somewhere (Madeline's graduation, Mitchell in India, the marriage), and then drift back a few months and explain how they got there. If I'm correct, the only narrator who doesn't employ this device is Leonard. Because of his illness, he's incapable of seeing how the pieces fit together. He is purely a force of NOW and only moves forward. I don't know how I felt about it, though. I'm left wondering if this narrative device points to another broad theme: we want instant nostalgia, we want to look back and see that all the pieces to fit. Is it that people want to believe that everything has led us to here, that where we are is inevitable, and therefore right.
However, I don't think I'm ever going to feel that he pulls off the ending. It was so rushed: Leonard's out, Michell's in, and the whole year gets a do-over? What was that all about? That's really the ending? I guess it's fairy-tale-like: it ends with a wedding, but not much of the "after."And the "After" Madeline, Leonard, and Mitchell do get is pretty miserable. Since I'm not a fan of Madeline's favorite genre and authors (we all know how much I dread the Victorians), I can't speak to whether or not this is a common trope of the marriage plot. Do those books usually end one the wedding has been achieved?
This is one of those books where although the narrative seems pretty simple, there was a lot going on under the surface. I think that's why I'm going to end up liking it more as I think about it. Definitely looking forward to hearing your thoughts! You can write a whole entry yourself, or do you prefer just adding to this one? Considering the length requirement on the comment field, I'm thinking your response will have to be a full-on post!
PS Apparently, according to Book Riot, this is an actual billboard in Times Square. Is it not the most hilarious thing you have ever seen? I love his billowing vest---vaguely reminiscent of Leonard's billowing cape?