Book review: The Marriage Plot

I just read an interesting book. Who says I can’t blog about that too? Nothing’s off-limits, as I demonstrated in my last post.

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, was published in 2011 but takes place in 1982-83. The story follows three Brown University graduates, Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell, as they struggle for self-actualization. Madeleine is definitely the central character, as Mitchell and Leonard revolve around her. She’s an English major, with a focus on Victorian literature written by women. (You can see why I gravitated towards her.) She’s also an “old money” type, as her dad is a former college president. Leonard is Madeleine’s boyfriend for most of the book. They break up for about three weeks, but then Madeleine realizes she can’t live without him. He suffers from bipolar disorder, and Eugenides manifests this disorder in some pretty intense ways. At his high points, or mania, he can do anything – he’ll sleep with whatever woman he sees, or at the very least satisfies Madeleine beyond her wildest dreams. He’s brilliant in class and exercises a lot. It’s these times that earn him a reputation as one of the most attractive guys in his class. At his low points, however, he cannot get out of bed. He’s suicidal and feels terrible about the drag he’s putting on Maddy. She finds herself in a nurse’s position, constantly having to watch him to make sure he doesn’t harm himself. Leonard has several episodes of this disorder, beginning with his high school years in Portland, Oregon. Madeleine has great intentions with trying to be a support system for him, but it was clear to me that she didn’t want to be his “crutch,” either, which I think she did become once they moved in together after they graduated college. The reader is always on edge about Leonard, too. Eugenides doesn’t let on the intensity of his condition right away, so when things really start happening, the impact is strengthened. The Madeleine-Leonard plot raises some important questions about how we deal with mental illness. Even after being in a relationship with him for over a year, Maddy still doesn’t seem to understand how to treat him. At one point after they go to a party, she asks him if he had fun, even though clearly he didn’t. She insists she’s trying to help him “get better,” but he responds saying that he’ll never get better, demonstrating his biological understanding of the disease (he’s a bio major). Or maybe she’s trying too hard, or is under the influence of her parents who don’t think she should be with him. Leonard’s parents seem to get it even less, ironically, as they’re one of the main causes of the disease in the first place, with their failed marriage and the way his mother seems to blame Leonard for being like his father. When his depression manifests itself at the worst, she insists that he’s lazy and not trying. His sister says the same. Meanwhile, I never had this reaction to Leonard. I was more just in awe of the way his symptoms came out. Eugenides clearly did his research. It was hard for me to make any sort of judgment call about Leonard; perhaps that was Eugenides’ goal – to make the reader ask questions. Even though it takes place 30 years ago, it’s still relevant today.

The other plot involves Mitchell, an on-and-off friend of Madeleine’s who’s fallen in love with her. He desires her throughout college but runs out of chances. After graduation, he goes off on a year of traveling with his best friend, hoping to forget about Maddy but failing, especially once he receives a letter from her. The two travel through France, Ireland, Italy, and Greece, until they reach their final destination in India. Mitchell is a religious studies major and is searching for a final resting place on his faith journey. He experiments with Christian mysticism and is completely obsessed with going to cathedrals. He considers becoming Roman Catholic, and in India he volunteers for a group associated with Mother Teresa and wears a big cross around his neck. While we all express our faith (or lack thereof) in different ways, I don’t think Mitchell ever wants to call himself a “Christian.” Like many people, he experiments with different expressions, as well as reading up on Christian thought and the Bible of course. By the end of the book, he’s going to Quaker meetings. Through all of this, Mitchell searches for answers about whether he’s supposed to be with Madeleine. It’s arguable whether he goes through depression himself, as at many moments he berates himself with self-loathing talk. His heightening sexuality is also a role player. He questions whether his desire for Madeleine is true, or if he is merely objectifying her. He’s a much more interesting character than Madeleine or Leonard, in my opinion – he changes the most. Plus, he also demonstrates the extent of Eugenides’ research – he would have had to travel to all the places Mitchell and his friend went to understand them as well as he seemed to.

Overall, the book was a very fast read. The edition I got was 406 pages but still fast. This might surprise you, since a lot of the text is academic jargon, describing what these young adults are studying. Of course, as an English major myself, Madeleine’s studies made perfect sense to me. Leonard’s biology was a bit over my head, but it makes its point well. Mitchell’s religious studies were not too difficult to decipher. The conflicts are fairly enticing – who doesn’t love a good love triangle? I had my own preferences about how I wanted the book to turn out. I won’t say whether those were met or not, but the ending was fine as it was. It probably helped that sex was a major theme of the book, particularly female sexual politics. The role of Madeleine’s sexuality sheds light on her relationship with Leonard. In fact, many of the scenes between them are downright pornographic – Eugenides doesn’t spare any details. Not many authors I’ve read – probably none, actually – have given as much credit to female sexual desires as Jeffrey Eugenides gave to Madeleine. Another female character who makes waves, albeit a minor one, was Claire, the girlfriend of Mitchell’s friend Larry whom they meet in Paris. She is the kind of feminist I wish I could be, with well-reasoned arguments and self-confidence to be reckoned with, breaking down the patriarchy of Western religion. She drives Mitchell crazy, and she kind of made me hate him. (Despite Mitchell being the most changed character, I definitely didn’t love him.)

The Marriage Plot definitely shook up my brain a little, although I can’t say it made me change my views on anything. My views are changing already, and the book mostly just confirmed what I am coming to believe on my own. I picked a good time to read it, though. It’s reassuring to freshly single folk and makes you think about what you can really deal with in a relationship. My biggest beef with Madeleine is that she always seems to think she needs a boyfriend. But even Mitchell, the boy who loves her the most, recognizes her need for autonomy. This book isn’t quite a beach read, unless you consider erotic academia a beach read. It’s a mix of fun and learning – sounds a bit like a liberal arts college to me.

More to come soon once work picks back up! Love you all.

Brita

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