Eric's Reviews > The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
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's review
Jan 07, 2012

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Read from December 24, 2011 to January 07, 2012

Because, long ago, I was dazzled by the prose of The Virgin Suicides and the sprawling, multigenerational tale of Middlesex, and because I had waited a decade for Eugenides' next book, I was heavily invested in loving this one. And I kinda-sorta do love The Marriage Plot, though I'm not convinced the book deserves it. I'd give this one 2.5 out of 5 stars.

I don't know whether you'll find "spoilers" below, but you should stop reading now if you're super-sensitive to that sort of thing.

At first I enjoyed the way that Eugenides evokes a world I could imagine J.D. Salinger writing, but I'm not sure that's what Eugenides is going for. He stops going for it, soon enough, at any rate. The central character here, Madeleine Hanna, never comes to life in the way that the men in her life do. She is rather bland, and its unclear what either of them sees in her (aside from a vaguely described physical beauty). Both men are more interestingly drawn and compelling. And this is the book's primary flaw: we spend about 75% of our time in Madeleine's perspective, but Eugenides fails to do anything especially compelling with her. He tries, though, and I can't say that the book is a complete failure. The Marriage Plot has been falsely (but not unfairly) accused of failing the Bechdel Test. (This one passes on a technicality, midway through the novel, when Madeleine spends a brief weekend making female friends at a conference on Victorian literature--a token gesture on Eugenides' part, most likely.) In the end, I'm not sure how Madeleine has grown, if at all, except to have survived her experiences and entered grad school.

At any rate, my chief objection is not to the central character, but to the weaker-than-usual craft. Eugenides is capable of writing great prose and telling a complex story packed with vivid, compelling scenes. Here, though, he skims. More than half the book coasts along in Cliffs-Notes mode, summarizing events and intricately cataloging thoughts, without bothering to set scenes or even motivate the characters. Chalk up some of this to the conventional marriage plot formula Eugenides is working with, if you must, but I can't help feeling this one was rushed to the presses despite the ten-year gap between this and the novel that precedes it.

Darn. I didn't want this to be quite so negative. As I suggested earlier, two of the three main characters are well drawn and engaging. It's a shame that neither one gets center stage for long, but the book does manage to pull off a convincing twenty-first century marriage plot. It's just a shame that the bride amounts to a more or less empty wedding dress. Yet Eugenides is patient here in his development of a story in a way he hasn't been before. So there is growth. And he captures (quite wonderfully) the heady, dazzling moment of the departure from college, when your head is buzzing with all the great stuff you've just read and now you're left to make some sense out of it and weave it into the fabric of your "real," post-college life. I enjoyed reading this novel, despite my reservations; and I don't want to discourage anyone else from reading the book. It's worth your time. Probably.

(I finished last night. It's hard to imagine that I won't come back and edit these comments when I've had more time to reflect.)

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Dina I just strted this and I am not getting the "pull in" that I have with his other books...

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