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?


  1. (Comment: Part 1 of 2)

    I don't think I have too much to add to your review except... I think I liked this book less than you did. I sure as shit did not find this book "Swoon-worthy" -- is that billboard meant to be sarcastic and/or ironic?

    In the beginning, I absolutely *hated* Madeleine and was not sure I was going to make it further. As we got into Mitchell's story, I really got into the book. Later on, I got into Leonard and, to some degree, Madeleine. But when Madeleine and Leonard get *married*?! Aw, hells no!

    It's interesting that you did not find the characters believable, because that's the one thing I thought the book had going for it. I have known both Leonard and Mitchell (in fact, I may have dated some slightly diluted form of each of them in my life... I definitely have a "Leonard" in my past) so that felt very real to me. Madeleine seemed a *bit* extreme, but still... believable. I think she was a girl in my friend's sorority. I may have also run into her later in life, at some tech writing gig.

    I don't write off "I don't know what to do with my life" to being an English major because I was just talking last week to someone graduating next year with a double major in Chemistry and Math and he has *no* idea what he is going to do next year (mind you, I warned him 3 years ago about this very situation...)

    What struck me about the woes of all of these characters not knowing what they're going to "do" when they get out of college is that the book was set in 1982. 1994 -- same problem. 2011 -- same problem. Someone was recently telling me how extremely hard it is for college grads now because they don't have jobs/know what they're going to do, but it sounds to me like a chronic fucking problem, and this book just supported that.

    Soapbox time: Do your kid a favor now -- pay attention to what he likes to do and guide him into the appropriate career by the age of 13. People say that "takes away their childhood" but I call bullshit on this. At 13, if I had committed to what I wanted to do, I would be a kick-ass lawyer today. For reals. But I waffled and let people discourage me from what I knew I wanted to do and what I would truly be good at. I'm happy with where I have *finally* ended up, but oh the road to get here... this could have all been prevented by someone saying to 13 year old Kelly: "What do you want to do? Let's do THAT." /soapbox

    Back to the book: It was interesting to me that it was set in 1982, because I felt that all of it was basically timeless except for the few mentions of music (which still could have been an "80s theme" party today), occasional current economics (similar to today's situation) and, most importantly, the communication methods... or lack thereof. I wondered to myself if every author has to go pre-1990 if they want to eliminate all reference to the Internet and/or mobile phones. There was an interview with Eugenides at the end of my book where he said that he felt that the story was "timeless" and the only reason he set it in the 80s was because that's when he was in college, so he vividly remembers that time.

  2. (Comment: Part 2 of 2)

    As I have mentioned before, I listened to this as an audiobook. I'm still not 100% convinced that the narrator was right for the book... I was okay with him on Mitchell's part and even Leonard's, but with Madeleine, it just did not work. I felt like he was judging her for being such a nincompoop. I can do that just fine on my own, narrator dude. And *then* he screwed up the very last few lines of the book, which absolutely *outraged* me. Mitchell asks, "But do you think that would be a good ending?" (I'm paraphrasing) but the narrator says it in *Madeleine's* voice! And then when she answers herself, it just seems totally weird. I was absolutely *furious* about this. It's like the narrator thought, "All right. Almost done. I can just phone these last few lines in..." and then those lines were, um, SORTA CRITICAL. Grrr.

    As for the ending... how could it have ended any other way? What? Mitchell just swoops in and takes Leonard's place? No. Leonard and Madeleine somehow make it work? No. I thought it ended perfectly. (Except for the narrator fuck-up, which was not the fault of the author in any way.)

    Meanwhile, Eugenides also said in his interview that, of all of his books, this is the one where he could see returning to the characters. He didn't make a commitment to it, but I found that interesting. Would you want to see the future of these characters, or are you happy to leave them where we have?

  3. K,

    I know you are right that it couldn't have ended any other way...and felt rushed. Maybe, maybe, it's this: why have Mitchell sleep with her before figuring out that it's wrong? Why can't he just *see* that it's wrong and move on? I don't know. It just seemed convenient that he had it both ways. On the other hand, sometimes it's only when you get what you want that you realize the truth: I didn't want that, I don't need it, this is destructive. I guess that's the genius of the book, it really does seem REAL in that way. Most of the time we're confused.

    Good point about the 1980s turning into the new default. In books I've read recently, it does seem that novelists don't really know how to deal with the advent of technology and its impact on our lives. I was especially moved by Mitchell's last letter telling her not to get married---and then the fact that that very letter goes missing.

    Oh, I don't imagine I'd read a sequel. I just didn't really care enough, I guess. And who's he kidding, anyways? He's no Joyce Carol Oates, churning out literature at a breathtaking pace. If you're publishing a book every 7-8 years, do you really have time to revisit the same characters. I'm not a writer, but I would imagine he would move on.


    PS You are right to call me on when I said the characters aren't believable. I think it might have been the easy way out of saying that my real problem is that I didn't find them all that compelling. I understood them, I saw what they were going through, but at the end it was all just sort of "meh" for me. I didn't feel passionately about the characters in the book.

  4. I think you nailed it: "sometimes it's only when you get what you want that you realize the truth: I didn't want that, I don't need it, this is destructive." *Especially* in Mitchell's case... he thought he was in love with Madeleine all that time, but I don't really think he even knew her. Maybe it took finally having her for him to realize, "Oh, yeah... I don't really know you..." I also see your first point: Really? He had to stick his dick in her to figure that out? BUT maybe yes, yes he did. Because somehow he couldn't see it when he had *not* stuck his dick in her.

    Just to clarify: Eugenides didn't *commit* to a sequel or anything. In fact, he was pretty reluctant to even talk about it. But the interviewer mentioned that the stories of these characters were not totally "complete" (like his previous novels) sooo... he could revisit them... you know... if he wanted to. He was kind of luke-warm about it, but indicated that yes, he could. But he probably wouldn't. The Rabbit series was invoked by the interviewer, and that made me want to barf. I hate John Updike.

  5. Oh, I totally hate John Updike, too! I didn't realize we had that in common. I read "Rabbit Run" in college and couldn't stand it.


    PS Your comment made me laugh.

  6. Why the hell does everyone love that dude? I do not understand. A few years back, I thought, "Oh, maybe it's because I was in college..." and tried to read him again and hated him yet again.

    Then one day, I was reading an article in a magazine and I suddenly thought, "Wow. I hate this writing..." Hadn't looked at the author. Then I did and... guess who? Oh, yeah. That Updike a-hole.