The Marriage Plot

Monday, 5 December 2011

sundari carmody (4)

I was browsing through Sundari Carmody's photography on the weekend, struck by how her images managed to capture the tone and style of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Her photographs here express visually what I loved about the novel: its unique drift from clarity to obscurity in its representation of love, intimacy and identity. And above all, its suggestion of love and loss as deeply entwined. I find it hard to express why her images are so appropriate for my thoughts here, so I hope it becomes apparent as I write.

sundari carmody (3)

I finished reading The Marriage Plot recently, and I devoured it quickly. It's an easy book to read, despite its foray into academic theory. There has been a somewhat mixed reaction to Eugenides's latest novel, after his Pulitzer Prize-winning, Middlesex. I can understand, for example, why so many were disappointed with the briefness of his latest novel. The Marriage Plot suggests a narrative structure that has much potential to be deepened. But I liked it, simple as that. There's an honesty, humour and maturity to this novel that I enjoyed, and it gave voice to a lot of doubts and unspoken feelings that occur within an intimate relationship.

sundari carmody (5)

The plot of the novel is simple. Eugenides creates a love triangle between three college students at Brown University in the early 1980s: Madeleine, a relatable heroine who harbours a deep love for Victorian literature; Leonard, a brilliant biology student who suffers from manic depression and with whom Madeleine falls in love; and Mitchell, a Religious Studies student who in turn falls in love with Madeleine. This is a story about familiar experiences: coming of age, life after college/university, love, loss, the complexity of sharing your life with someone else. It is told in an unpretentious manner and appeals to a sense of common humanity. It's also brilliantly written, taking you inside the mind of the characters with a skill very few authors possess.

sundari carmody (1)

If I were to name one big flaw which personally bothered me about The Marriage Plot, it would be that Madeleine should have been developed to the same extent as Leonard and Mitchell. If one of the basic premises of the novel is Eugenides's reworking of the traditional marriage plot found in nineteenth-century literature, then he needed to give her a more developed characterisation. After all, the marriage plot was based around female characters, giving women one of the few artistic avenues via which to explore significant social issues. There was potential for Eugenides to modernise such a plot with Madeleine, but I often felt she got lost in the more dominant characterisations of Leonard and Mitchell.

sundari carmody (7)

Still, this novel is full of insight and humour, poking fun at those who take themselves too seriously. For example, one poser student in Madeleine's Semiotics 211 class in college grandiosely proclaims that "Books aren't about 'real life.' Books are about other books" (p. 28). There are very few books that capture all the pretentious posing and pseudo-rebellion that so many enact in their university years. There's always one person in a group who likes to string together well-rehearsed philosophical statements, borrowed from other people's minds, in an attempt to sound cool. Eugenides not only satirises this type of "coolness" culture in academia, but also seeks to move beyond it. He shows us that books aren't just about other books, they are also about real life. They provide glimpses into our vulnerabilities, our flaws and the incompleteness of our lives. They comfort us, support us. In the face of pretentious posing, Eugenides presents the literary word as a form of sincerity rather than erudite alienation.

sundari carmody (6)

Madeleine herself only becomes interested in her Semiotics class when she is introduced to Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse: an indescribable book about the complexities of being in love. She responds to it by relating it directly to her own life: "The more she thought about it, the more Madeleine understood that extreme solitude didn't just describe the way she was feeling about Leonard. It explained how she'd always felt when she was in love. It explained what love was like and, just maybe, what was wrong with it" (p. 53).

Madeleine doesn't approach A Lover's Discourse as theory but as reality. Which is how I think most theoretical positions should be tested. I don't see the point of theory for theory' sake, I want theory to open a door into my life, not shut me from it. Madeleine's approach to Barthes summarises how I often reacted to theoretical texts when I was an undergraduate student, and her statement about the loneliness of being in love is a prime example. Is there anything more strange than being in love? A state which is supposed to bind you intimately with another person, but which ironically also results in showing you the limits of truly understanding another human being.

sundari carmody (8)

This is honesty, there are no idealised flights into romantic "oneness" with Eugenides. We are fed by an unhealthy dose of idealised love, and when it doesn't meet these high expectations, when another human being doesn't "complete" us, we revert to disappointment. Eugenides shows us that it's actually okay to feel loneliness and that other people don't exist to complete us, they have their own stories to live out. When Madeleine later questions the wisdom of falling in love with a manic depressive, she realises that life doesn't offer an ideal marriage plot, and that "to feel so much was its own justification" (p. 126). In many ways, Eugenides provides an alternative theory of love based on what we actually feel, rather than what we think we should feel.

I would have liked this to have been explored fuller. When the pages ended, I realised I wanted more. This may be a bit of a shortcoming in the novel, but it also signifies the extent to which it was successful in drawing me into its world, leaving me with questions that I wanted answered.

Has anyone read The Marriage Plot? If so, what did you think of it?

Image credits: All images are by Sundari Carmody and are used here with permission. Visit her website, flickr and blog to see more of her work. Thanks Sundari.

25 comments:

nancy said...

yet another book to add to my must-read list. you have successfully drawn me in to your experience of the book, and I very much look foward to reading it and giving you my opinion.

your review of 1Q84 also spurred me on to add it to my Christmas wish list :)

Heather said...

I just finished it today and loved it! I heard an interview with Eugenides where he said that this was the one book where he could imagine revisiting the characters at some point in the future. I can't decide if I hope he does or not...

Thought it was brilliant - to me, the fact that the story was so engrossing was a great way to simultaneously speak to and overcome all the theory.

nikaela marie said...

I read this book last month, after buying it the day it came out here in Canada. I am (was) a huge Eugenidies fan. I enjoyed Middlesex and the Virgin Suicides so, and even also discovered and loved an introduction to a book of short stories he edited called "My Mistress' Sparrow is Dead". I am one of those who was very disappointed. What makes this extra frustrating is that I can't put my finger on precisely why. It wasn’t just the plot, which was altogether too clearly laid out too early in the story, it was the writing itself. I remember Middlesex inspiring me to write. His ability to describe characters, detailing even the minor ones, challenged me to look more closely at my world. The Marriage Plot didn’t do this. I don’t know why. The writing somehow seemed to lack the life I expected in it.
I am thankful for your interpretation and agree with your criticism that Madeline wasn’t fully enough developed. I did laugh a few times and did love Mitchell’s character a lot. But the last few pages were the worst. It seemed to me that he failed to find an ending, and just decided to wrap it up without one. I was bored.

Mariella said...

As usual I enjoyed this review a lot, I particularly loved what you say about books, and their role into our lives, it's all so true. It makes me think how much I miss reading (seriously) now that my time is so limited I feel like I am missing a big part of my life.

odessa said...

wow, sundari's photos are gorgeous. and very evocative. i really love the first one!

and now i'm really tempted to run to my local bookstore and pick up a copy of The Marriage Plot. it sounds rich and delicious.

Emily Vanessa said...

It's always nice to come here, even if I seem to miss soem great posts in between. There's another wonderful book tip for my list so thanks a lot. I'm a huge fan of Jeffrey Eugenides so can't wait to get a copy of this. It's also amazing how you find the perfect photos to express your thoughts.

gracia said...

"its unique drift from clarity to obscurity"

Ah, yes, I like this a lot. A tremendous lot.

Wishing you many more hours reading, reading, reading,
g xo

Hotly Spiced said...

Thanks for the great review. Clearly I need to pick up copies of these for Christmas gifts and stocking fillers.

Rambling Tart said...

Wow, these images are brilliant, not haunting yet they linger and mesmerize. Beautiful. :-)

See Hear Say said...

i don't read much but i've read middlesex a while back and loved it. you make me really curious about this book now!

sundari's photos are just amazing, there's something eerie and beautiful at the same time in her style.

Jane Flanagan said...

I agree with you about how theory should be tested. I always felt this way as a philosopher, though in the end it probably signified my demise as an analytical examiner.

This book has been on my list for a while now and I'm excited to read it having read what you've written. It sounds right up my alley!

Thank you.

Our Youth said...

Your blog is great. I only found it today...

I haven't read Marriage Plot yet but you really make me want to read it. I have so many books to read from my ''must read list'' and this seems to be a new one!

Love x

hila said...

nancy: well I hope you receive 1Q84 for christmas then :)

heather: yes, I like his use of theory too. Usually it can be cumbersome within fictional work, but it flowed here. It would be interesting to see what he does with these characters if he ever revisits them.

nikaela marie: yep, the last few pages seemed to be rushed. But I wasn't bored at all by it. oh well, we can't all love the same books :) It certainly wasn't perfect, but the story had enough substance in it to draw me in, and I liked it better than most other books I've read lately by contemporary authors.

mariella: I really can't imagine not reading. It's such an integral part of my life, and it helps me sort things out in my head.

odessa: the first photo is my favourite, such a great shot.

emily vanessa: I procrastinate on the internet too much, that's why I find these photos :)

gracia: you too gracia dear! I hope your reading challenge is proceeding nicely.

holy spiced: actually, that's a pretty good idea.

rambling tart: I would have to agree :)

see hear say/laura: I think this is a pretty easy book to read, it flows rather nicely. So you should definitely give it a go. and I agree about sundari's photos.

jane flanagan: I'd be interested to hear your take on it after you read it. I come from a cultural theorist/feminist position, so most of the time my theories have been strengthened through experience. I suspect though if I delved into philosophy deeper, I may come into some trouble.

our youth: thank you!

L▲UREN said...

I have read the marriage plot and LOVED it. My favourite book of all time is probably Middlesex but I still enjoyed the marriage plot so much. I love how eugendies knows people and emotions so well. How he could articulate madeleines longing for Leonard like he has been a 19 year old himself. It's unbelievable. I love how you said that he has the ability to delve in to characters minds like not many other authors can. Thank you so much for the review! I loooove your blog Hila! Xo

katrin said...

Oh dear, I didn't like the Marriage Plot very much at all. Although, for a novel I disliked I'm a little perplexed by how easily I read it and how, like you, I really wished for more at the end. I enjoyed reading your review and I think you are absolutely spot on matching the photographs to the atmosphere of the story - quite beautiful and a little uncanny.

L▲UREN said...

Mmm I meant to say 'like he has been a 19 year old girl himself' haha he obviously has been 19 ...

hila said...

lauren: not to worry, I knew what you meant :)

katrin: it seems to polarise people, a lot of my friends liked it or totally didn't like it. I understand though some of the criticism about this novel.

andrea despot said...

I don't know if you spoil anything here, but I'd still like to wait to read this until after I read the book myself. I'm more and more anxious to pick up my own copy as soon as possible!

Nancy Baric *negfilm said...

oh sundari carmody is such a talented photographer! and i love the narrative in each of her photographs...
plus barhes' a lover's discourse: fragments is perhaps my favourite book...
no i have not read eugenides' the marriage plot...but will look for it now. thanks!

hila said...

andrea: I probably do spoil a lot here, so best not to read it if you want the book to be a surprise.

nancy: I've always loved sundari's work, she's one of my favourites. and yes, I love a lover's discourse - Barthes is always so truthful.

julie digs design said...

I actually just finished reading it last night. Middlesex is my favorite book, so of course I had a lot of expectations for A Marriage Plot to be fantastic! It was a bit less than that, among others things - all of the relationships were very irrational and the only character I really liked was Mitchell. A good read, however, definitely does not even compare to Middlesex. These images match the novel perfectly!

Lauren said...

What a great post. I just finished the novel last week and I agreed with almost everything you loved or found fault with in the novel. And the pictures are a great accompaniment to the novel as well! Thank you!

hila said...

julie: I agree, it doesn't compare to middlesex. I really enjoyed the marriage plot, but it felt 'undercooked' and underdeveloped. I wanted more. But what I read, I liked a lot.

lauren: my pleasure!

Sundari said...

Ok I just finished this book. Had to sneak out of bed so I could finish the last 20 pages without waking 'the bedfellow' up. I know exactly what people mean by Madeleine's characterisation, it did feel a bit watered down or maybe washed out in comparison to the boys but I couldn't help but feel for her all the same. It's so weird reading your post and looking back on these photos in the context of this book. Whoa! While I was reading 'The Marriage Plot' I couldn't help but relate it to my own life, I felt many of Madeleine's experiences were close to my own. I must say I've loved both sixty lights and this book. ;)

Sundari said...

P.S. it's probably better to read books in order of publication, but judging by the comments it seems it's a good thing I haven't read middlesex yet so as not to expect too much of this book.