Kafka said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Stories that bore holes, blasting through the ice and earth rather than piling more on top of a parched, idle field, has the capacity to alter the reader, produce a chemical reaction and transgress the space that has already been traversed.
Eugenides’ revolutionary novel THE VIRGIN SUICIDES blew the dust off the languid spines of literature shelves and, although the context wasn’t new (suburbia, Baby Boom generation), his Greek chorus of narrators and laconic treatment of shocking and tragic events allowed the reader a lot of space to interpret and experience the inscrutability of the feminine mystique. He allowed questions to be more meaningful than answers. Although the five blonde virgin girls were archetypal, he bent the very signifier of archetype with great irony and paradox. (Score: 3.75/5)
MIDDLESEX, a Pulitzer winner in 2003, brought intersex issues to the forefront. The acclaim and mainstream success of Eugenides’ novel was unprecedented though the topic had been pioneered by others first. The context of a Greek immigrant family’s history (Eugenides is also Greek) and the polarized male/female social commentary, penetrating prose, and androgynous style of narration. Best work, easily. (Score: 4.25/5)
THE MARRIAGE PLOT. Now the meat of this post. Yikes. It is not groundbreaking or unpredictable. It is closer to an exercise in pretentious eloquence that is somehow digestible because that manufactured taste has been so expertly disguised. Eugenides makes familiar, even prosaic pit stops in this largely sex-fueled chick-lit love triangle set in 1982 on the cusp of graduation at Brown University, an academic institution which embraces post-modernism. Over-familiar themes get a boost because of the textual discussion of semiotics and Eugenides’ renegade, rogue prose style and levity, making the scholarly concerns accessible and thought provoking.
The best parts of the book were the academic digressions! And if that’s true, this is bad.
The story explores the thesis of deconstruction, attainment, and illusion, pursuing (that overwrought theme of) romantic love and individuation while coming-of-age within a specific social construct—in this book, the 80’s and on the continuum of feminism. Derrida and Barthes et al flood the pages and add the most exuberant boosts to a long-winded, sometimes stagnant storyline of Cupidity. The narrative and plot reduce romance to the banal, and to Jodi Picoult territory, but from a misogynistic window (however shrewdly disguised).
Perhaps the book was meant to feel the way it does and be self-aware as a statement on to itself, representing themes by the very form and style in which it is written, both good and bad. Maybe the design of how the story is told has a meaning all its own, making the very things I’m complaining about here part of what the book is meant to convey. An abstract element often misunderstood that is as important as the plot. And that is a lot of thinking for your average book reader. And that’s the pretentiousness I mentioned. It’s a book about how books are written for an intended audience of literary buffs and writers who give a shit about that kind of stuff. I held my own drekking through this, but, I digress…
Eugenides taunts the slings and arrows of hearts and broken hearts with such lyrical, fetching effusion that the journey is deceptively captivating, even while it ambushes you to a pre-ordained destination. He also explores the conundrum his female protagonist, Madeleine, faces in trying to reconcile feminism with her taste for Victorian love and literature, and her dependent tethering to a man– her object of desire, Leonard. I was disappointed in the lack of new insight here, even though it was gussied up to parallel a formal construct of the title’s origin–18th and 19th century novels by Austen, Eliot, Henry James, and the Brontë sisters.
Madeleine Hanna, an intelligent and exceptionally beautiful protagonist, is an archetype that doesn’t really stray from the time-honored territory, so as the story progresses, she is more watered down and reduced to making stock choices.
Just about every choice Madeleine makes is in response to men, not guided by anything individual. That may be realistic, in this story, and in Eugenides’ eyes, but when I think of outstanding literature, Kafka’s statement comes to mind. Eugenides’ latest has been so preliminarily lauded and celebrated that it is already a sacred cow, and risky to criticize.
While written lyrically and rollicking, it is all over-written in the end. Could have been a hundred pages less, and honestly, getting to page 130 and starting the second “part” or “chapter” — at long last — was a challenge, and only day one of the tale. Ugh.
Should get a 2/5, but the quality of writing makes this a generous 2.75/5. Read something else by him or something else all together.
I do not recommend this. It’s just too long with not enough pay off. Read two books in the time you read this one, plus, have more fun doing it. (A novel similiar to The Marriage Plot which gets a 3/5 is “The Art of Feilding” — an equally acclaimed and “too long” novel from 2011 which was just sooooooo good. Sarcasm.)