Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Marriage Plot

"There were some books that reached through the noise of life to grab you by the collar and speak only of the truest things."

Unfortunately, Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot isn't one of them. But it does make you remember all of the books that you've ever loved. I have a special bookshelf in my room for such books -- they're protected by glass sliding doors.

I've read each book multiple times and I know many of my favorite lines by heart. The list includes Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, Cynthia Voigt's A Solitary Blue, Zadie Smith's On Beauty, and many many other old, cherished friends.

The Marriage Plot takes you back to college, when you were in love with books and ideas, and with life in general. It follows three people: Madeleine Hanna, self-avowed Victorianist and sheltered privileged girl, and her two suitors, the depressed Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus, who's on a spiritual search.

Watching Madeleine fall in love with Barthes's A Lover's Discourse, reminds me why I fell in love with it too.

Madeleine has her books, while Mitchell has his quest for religious enlightenment. I like that of the three, he was the one whom "education had finally led...out into life".

Meanwhile, Leonard has his manic depression. It's interesting to see how Eugenides deals with this illness - sure, Leonard has a crappy family, but he also revels in feeling melancholy, until suddenly, he can no longer control it. Having friends and loved ones who are dealing with depression, it's helpful to understand what they might be going through. There's something to be said for the limits of empathy -- sometimes you can never really know how something feels like until you experience it for yourself.

Like Margaret Atwood's Moral Disorders, this books feels intensely personal. I can see Eugenides in all three characters.

The Marriage Plot is based on the premise that while the old Victorian novels ended happily with marriage, modern life (and plots) aren't quite as neat. This book deals with a marriage (I won't say to whom) and examines what happens after. The Marriage Plot even follows the division of novels into lengthy parts instead of chapters. It's yet another sign that the Internet has drastically shortened my attention span that I found myself impatient with this device. But Eugenides's wry insights and deft prose makes this book a rewarding read.

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