Missed in '11: The Marriage Plot

The "Missed in '11" exercise is also partially about clearing out the queue of posts I have sitting here, without the guilt of deleting them. Problem is, of course, that the thoughts in these drafts aren't fully formed, and in some cases I don't even have the book anymore (thank you for existing, Toronto Public Library). This post on The Marriage Plot suffers all these conditions, so I'll try to make as much sense of it as possible while trying not to re-hash old ground; this was a much-anticipated book, and has already had a lot written about it!

I loved that The Marriage Plot is partially a book about books. I loved most the passages when the characters are actively engaging with text. Madeline reads Barthes and it directly affects her, differently as her year goes on. She carries it with her like advice guide and Bible in one. That’s the sort of thing that makes theory important. It’s not just dry linguistic wank, or at least it doesn’t have to be. It is beautiful, what Eugenides does with A Lover's Discourse. Mitchell, second-side of the love triangle, takes a wide variety of texts with him when he travels through Europe and India. He, too, is shown to live with and through the books he’s reading. Leonard (the love interest) — despite having met Madeline in the semiotics class that brought Barthes into her life — doesn’t really seem to read. He is Other, he’s a scientist, he’s cold numbers. It’s a set up, and you can’t really root for Madeline and Leonard, even if you’re not a book person (and if you’re not why the heck you’d be reading Eugenides is a mystery).

Now, for the complain-y part…

I can't figure out why two boys would be so in love with this horribly bland girl. I mean, I get that the book isn't really about the girl, it's about the boys, and that might be why she's written so blandly. Mitchell and Leonard are given complexities, rather vicious ups and downs, broad geographical range. Madeline only seems to have one mood: a sort of wandering wide-eyed confusion (oh, but she's "book smart"). She's recognized as the American version of beautiful but that seems to be the only thing to recommend her. She's the sort of girl who just has it so easy, things just come to her. She's privileged, athletic, a scholar who isn't challenged. She's a bit of a narcissist, frankly, with the Madeline wallpaper that she loves as a child remaining in her bedroom . Her interior life, and she does have one, is stunted in this way, stuck a bit in me-me land, the way a child is. She’s not malicious or cruel, she’s just so used to things being at worst mildly unpleasant. She is so coddled and padded. And perhaps that's a lot of it, that she is just a child, and children are not fascinating dinner companions; they're funny and cute but they're not complex and interesting.

I don't know the Regency source material of the marriage plot, I haven't read any Austen, so I’m not sure how this flows with Eugenides plot and characterization. I’m probably not far off to assume that the women in life and literature of the time, were probably talked around and about, instead of to, were treated like large children until the second they got married, and then had to assume the role of an adult immediately. And that may explain why Madeline’s mother brings her older sister Alywn to her, so the two sisters can discuss Alwyn's failing marriage. Madeline, as a newlywed at the point, is supposed to have sage advice to give to an older sibling, who has just had a baby. The only time Madeline interested me was when she to a Victorian Literature conference, where Gilbert or Gubar (I forget which) was speaking (nice touch)*. There, she finds others who share her love of literature, and decides to become a Victorianist, which is a newly emerging field when the book is set.

I don't think she takes care of Leonard when his mental illness becomes too large for him to deal with himself because she loves him; Leonard made her feel validated and adored when he was healthy, and she’s trying to recapture that. She never really had to grow up, but Leonard who comes from a very troubled family had to take responsibility very early. (Mitchell seems like a bit of a child too, when he literally runs away from having to clean up human feces while volunteering in a Hospital in India. Again, they're well suited.) Madeline’s parents have weird family meetings to discuss her life while she sits there; they talk around her, they keep her in that child state. So why do these two boys love this bland, perfect thing so much? Are we supposed to believe that these two, perhaps by extension many others, aren’t so interested in a woman’s interior as they are with her image? It’s a mystery that honestly plagued me through the book, because I’d expected more from Eugenides.

And then on the very last page... he resolves it. Humanely, lovely.

The Marriage Plot doesn't reach the great heights that Middlesex did, and while I spent a fair amount of time being frustrated with the characterization (and I kind of feel like the really great ending is kind of snatching things out of the fire at the last possible moment) I do still recommend people read it, if they've liked his work before. It's not a big disappointment the way Freedom was, after The Corrections. Not every book is an author's best book, and The Marriage Plot is still a very good book.

*And at that moment in the book, I had the weirdest sensation of being jealous of a fictional character.

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