Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot is not a “beach read” in the metaphorical sense, but it was a terrific beach read in the literal sense for me a couple weeks ago, when I was in between scuba dives in Cozumel, Mexico. 500 pages of tightly spun goodness; a classic love triangle story told by one of the living masters in Jeffrey Eugenides; a reading experience where you enjoy both the plot and the random life philosophy thought-bombs; and, for the writerly inclined, plenty of “what a sentence!” moments.

One of the things I’ve learned about myself, as far as reading fiction is concerned, is that I tend to like fewer protagonists and a relatively straightforward plot line. When dozens of characters surface and when the timeline keeps jumping around, I can easily lose my place and my momentum. Partly this is a function of not always being able to read large chunks of the book in consecutive days; if a few days pass in between reading, I’m prone to forget what’s going on. It might also have to do with brain works, apparently: I can’t keep track of dozens of fictional side characters in novels.

The Marriage Plot works to my style, then. There are three main characters, they graduate from university, and they go on to experience love and work and complications in the big bad real world. The chapters alternate between characters. Among the more captivating threads for me involved the manic depressive highs and lows of Leonard’s character.

I’m not informed enough to grok the literary inside baseball that pops up throughout this novel. I’m a mere surface reader of Eugenides and this novel — i.e. there are emotions in here about “real life” and I believe the stories and emotions to be realistic enough that I can enjoy the absorption. I’m not looking for or reflecting on some deeper meaning that’s being portrayed — commentary about other novels, literary trends, or sly references to Eugenides’ contemporaries. The relationship dynamics between the characters are provocative enough!

Some of my Kindle highlights are pasted below. Paragraphs appear as I pasted them in, they are not actually in sequential order in the book.


Phyllida, holding her handbag protectively against her chest, had paused to peruse the student art on the walls: six paintings of small, skin-diseased dogs wearing bleach-bottle collars. “Isn’t this fun?” she said tolerantly. [“Tolerantly” as a way of describing the tone of a statement.]

That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical—because they weren’t musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.

But after three solid years of taking literature courses, Madeleine had nothing like a firm critical methodology to apply to what she read. Instead she had a fuzzy, unsystematic way of talking about books. It embarrassed her to hear the things people said in class. And the things she said. I felt that. It was interesting the way Proust. I liked the way Faulkner.

Even Madeleine, who found all the reading hard going, could tell that Zipperstein’s contribution to the field was reformulative and second-tier.

The pleasure Madeleine got from looking at Dabney was reminiscent of the pleasure she’d gotten as a girl from looking at sleek hunting dogs. Underneath this pleasure, like the coals that fed it, was a fierce need to enfold Dabney and siphon off his strength and beauty. It was all very primitive and evolutionary and felt fantastic. The problem was that she hadn’t been able to allow herself to enjoy Dabney or even to exploit him a little, but had had to go and be a total girl about it and convince herself that she was in love with him. Madeleine required emotion, apparently. She disapproved of the idea of meaningless, extremely satisfying sex. And so she began to tell herself that Dabney’s acting was “restrained” or “economical.” She appreciated that Dabney was “secure about himself” and “didn’t need to prove anything” and wasn’t a “showoff.” Instead of worrying that he was dull, Madeleine decided he was gentle. Instead of thinking he was poorly read, she called him intuitive. She exaggerated Dabney’s mental abilities in order not to feel shallow for wanting his body. To this end she helped Dabney write—O.K., she wrote—English and anthro papers for him and, when he got A’s, felt confirmed of his intelligence.

Leonard did sound a little nervous. That wasn’t good. Madeleine didn’t like nervous guys. Nervous guys were nervous for a reason. Up until now Leonard had seemed more the tortured type than the nervous type. Tortured was better.

As he stood on the platform, Mitchell wondered if Madeleine’s wearing her glasses indicated that she felt comfortable around him, or if it meant that she didn’t care about looking her best for him.

Presently, Billy had one hand sensitively in the back pocket of Madeleine’s jeans. She had her hand in the back pocket of his jeans. They were moving along like that, each cupping a handful of the other. In Madeleine’s face was a stupidity Mitchell had never seen before. It was the stupidity of all normal people. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.

Mitchell felt guilty for fantasizing about his friend’s girlfriend but not guilty enough to stop.

He was looking at her with his big eyes. He reached out to take her hands. “I love you!” he said. And Madeleine had surprised herself by replying, “I love you, too.” She meant that she loved him but didn’t love love him. That, at least, was one possible interpretation, and, on Bedford Street, at three a.m., Madeleine decided not to clear up the matter further.

He was defective, and she wasn’t, and there was nothing she could do about it. The cruelty of this thought felt rich and sweet and Madeleine indulged in it for another minute.
Suddenly the dog sped past again, ripping up sand. “I don’t know why it makes me so happy to watch my dog run,” MacGregor said. “It’s like a piece of me gets to hitch a ride.” She shook her head. “This is what it’s come to. Living vicariously through my poodle.” “There are worse things.”

Larry was in a good mood. The speed with which he’d gotten over Claire was stunning. Maybe he hadn’t really liked Claire all that much. Maybe he disliked Claire as much as Mitchell did. The fact that Larry could get over Claire in a matter of weeks, whereas Mitchell remained heartbroken over Madeleine—even though he hadn’t gone out with Madeleine—meant one of two things: either Mitchell’s love for Madeleine was pure and true and earthshakingly significant; or he was addicted to feeling forlorn, he liked being heartbroken, and the “emotion” he felt for Madeleine—somewhat increased by the flowing chianti—was only a perverted form of self-love. Not love at all, in other words.

At one point, in his sleep, Larry rolled on top of Mitchell, or Mitchell dreamed this. He had an erection. He thought he might throw up. Somebody in his dream was sucking his cock, or Larry was, and then he woke up to hear Larry say, “Ugh, you stink,” without pushing him away, however. And then Mitchell passed out again, and in the morning they both acted as if nothing had happened. Maybe nothing had.

“Wow. Most people don’t know that. I’m impressed.” She leaned toward him and said in a quiet voice, “Are you a Christian?” Mitchell hesitated to answer. The worst thing about religion was religious people. “I’m Greek Orthodox,” he said finally. “Well, that’s Christian.”

Our relationship has always defied categorization, so I guess it makes sense if this letter does too. Dear Mitchell, I don’t want to see you anymore (even though we haven’t been seeing each other). I want to start seeing other people (even though I’m already seeing someone). I need some time for myself (even though you haven’t been taking up my time). Okay? Do you get it now? I’m desperate. I’m taking desperate measures.

All of this, as Leonard later learned from his therapists, amounted to emotional abuse. Not to be made to live in a house where a murder had taken place but to be the go-between in his parents’ affairs, to be constantly asked his opinion before he was mature enough to give one, to be made to feel that he was somehow responsible for his parents’ happiness and, later, their unhappiness.

It was like having a wild party in your head, a party at which you were the drunken host who refused to let anyone leave, who grabbed people by the collar and said, “Come on. One more!” When those people inevitably did vanish, you went out and found others, anyone and anything to keep the party going.

There was something about tennis—its aristocratic rituals, the prim silence it enforced on its spectators, the pretentious insistence on saying “love” for zero and “deuce” for tied, the exclusivity of the court itself, where only two people were allowed to move freely, the palace-guard rigidity of the linesmen, and the slavish scurrying of the ball boys—that made it clearly a reproachable pastime.

That was when Leonard realized something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up. As he was speaking, for instance, Leonard noticed Wendy Neuman cross her arms over her chest, as if to defend herself against the blatant insincerity of what he was saying. To win her back, Leonard admitted to this insincerity, saying, “No, I take that back. I’m lying. Lying is what I do. It’s part of my disease.” He eyed Wendy to see if she was buying this, or if she regarded it as further insincerity. The closer Leonard monitored her reactions, the further he got from telling the truth about himself, until he trailed off, feeling embarrassed and hot-faced, an eyesore of denial.

The bias of these kids was that Western religion was responsible for everything bad in the world, the rape of the earth, slaughterhouses, animal testing, whereas Eastern religion was ecological and pacific.

Madeleine’s excitement about the future seemed all the more vibrant against Leonard’s sudden lack of it. He was more or less sane now, more or less healthy, but he felt none of his usual energy or curiosity, none of his old animal spirits.

The logic of his brilliant move rested on one premise: that manic depression, far from being a liability, was an advantage. It was a selected trait. If it wasn’t selected for, then the “disorder” would have disappeared long ago, bred out of the population like anything else that didn’t increase the odds of survival. The advantage was obvious. The advantage was the energy, the creativity, the feeling of genius, almost, that Leonard felt right now.

It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.

All her life she’d avoided unbalanced people. She’d stayed away from the weird kids in elementary school. She’d avoided the gloomy, suicidal girls in high school who vomited up pills. What was it about crazy people that made you want to shun them? The futility of reasoning with them, certainly, but also something else, something like a fear of contagion. The casino, with its buzzing, smoke-filled air, seemed like a projection of Leonard’s mania, a howling zone full of the nightmare rich, opening their mouths to place bets or cry for alcohol.

One Response to Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

  1. Shane Schick says:

    I loved this book too. He won the Pulitzer for Middlesex but I found this one more enjoyable and powerful overall.

    Reply

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