I didn’t think I was going to like this book at first. That annoyed me, because I bought it as a Christmas present for my sister. That would have been lame, if I’d gotten her a not-good book for a Christmas present.
There are still some parts of this book that bothered me, mostly having to do with the prose and characterization (especially of the main female character). I don’t want to dwell on what I didn’t like about this book, though–I’d rather focus on what I DID like. The biggest indication of this book’s worth, I think, is the fact that I was late to work for three mornings in a row because I was at home reading it until the very absolutely last second when it would be OK for me to leave and just be Acceptably Late, as opposed to Disgustingly Late. And then as soon as I got home, there I would be on the couch again, reading away, using the inner sleeve of the bookjacket as my bookmark. So despite some elements that frustrated me, The Marriage Plot obviously captivated me in the way that a book is supposed to, when you spend all day just waiting for the moment when you can just pick it up and start reading it again.
There were several reasons I enjoyed reading this book. The biggest reason is that I find a very perverse, fan fiction like fascination with the idea that one of the main characters (Leonard, the manic depressive biologist) is partly based on/inspired by David Foster Wallace. The whole reason I wanted to read this book in the first place, to be honest, was due to this interesting article that put DFW in the context of what I guess you would call his literary peers: Jonathan Franzen, Eugenides, Rick Moody, and the like. I find it interesting that The Marriage Plot is such a straightforward story (I mean how much more 19th-century can you get than a marriage plot, right?), but was written for/among/about a writer who is considered very avant-garde, experimental, and non-traditional. It reminds me of the classic Jonathan Franzen/DFW question, about what exactly is fiction for and what “function” can it serve when books and reading are increasingly becoming irrelevant (at least among the population of kids, families and co-workers I spend my time with).
OK, so DFW was neither a biologist, nor manic depressive (just Depressive Depressive, I guess), or from a poor family as Leonard is, but I like how he wore a bandana, chewed tobacco, sweated a lot, complained about his lack of saliva and was super nerdy, intellectual and charming. Leonard’s first breakdown happens in sophomore year and I believe I read somewhere that that’s when DFW had his first major Depression crash as well. Ahh, sophomore year of college, don’t we all love it.
I also like reading about mental illness (another one of my pet interests, along with addiction). By the time I reached the end of this book I was feeling slightly manic depressive myself. It reminded me of the story my mom tells of when she used to work in a hospital filing patient cases, and she would be so bored she would spend her time reading them, and by the end of the day she would be convinced that she had basically every symptom of brain tumors and cancer. So it goes. So while I definitely enjoyed the manic depression passages, in some ways I feel like Eugenides takes the easy way out by making Madeline and Leonard’s relationship fail mostly due to his illness. One of these days I want to read a book in which a relationship fails for reasons that aren’t in Barbara’s Top Ten Lists of Why This Relationship Won’t Work (this list includes He’s Married, He Lives Somewhere Else, He Is Addicted, You Care More About Your Partner Than He Cares About You, and other gems). But there I go getting sidetracked by what I didn’t like, so let’s refocus.
Let’s see. I also liked how this book was a Coming-Of-Age story. I have a soft spot in my heart for those, lately, in my old age. I think Eugenides did a good job of capturing college and post-college life. The DISGUSTING houses that people live in, for instance (I remember my housemate who would ALWAYS leave her lettuce leaves floating and blocking the sink, or the time I was in my ex’s apartment and I lifted up a bowl on the kitchen counter only to find the liquified remains of something completely rotten and deteriorated underneath). The way you feel so anxious and aimless when you’re not in this structured, controlled environment where everything is Go-Go-Go all the time. The intensity with which you throw yourself into reading, writing and researching, the beauty of Barthes’ simple sentences compared to Derrida’s convoluted ones. (I remember wandering the library, pulling out every book that had to do with Faulkner in the shelves, my arms completely filled up as I headed back to my desk, feeling completely, completely happy.) The Virgin Suicides was also a coming-of-age story, and I guess Middlesex was too, though to be honest I never really got into Middlesex–the only part of that book that really came alive to me was the part when the main character got her first crush on a female friend. So it makes sense that this topic would be Eugenides’ main focus, and with The Marriage Plot he seems to be treating it in a third-person, realistic way (his prose often reminded me of David Lodge at times, another great writer of university campus novels), as opposed to a plot-focused way (e.g. Middlesex) or a dreamy, collective-voice way (The Virgin Suicides, which is still arguably his best novel).
I also liked how religion was a big focus in the book. I read an interview in which Eugenides said he wanted to incorporate religion in his novel because it’s obviously a Big Subject that is funnily enough not examined very often in mainstream fiction. I really enjoyed these parts of the book– they were probably my favorite. They were basically the Mitchell sections–Mitchell is the religious studies major, in love with Madeline (who is dating Leonard–their “love” triangle is the main driving force of the plot). The part where Mitchell volunteers for Mother Theresa in Calcutta reminded me of that crazy summer I spent in Tijuana working with the Salesian priests. That kicked me off in a long thought-spiral about Work and how it makes such a big difference when the context, purpose of and meaning of your work is clearly defined, but let’s not go into that right now. I now want to read all the books that Mitchell dogears while tramping through Europe: William James, St. Theresa (of Infinite Jest infamy), St. John of the Cross. It made me want to read and learn more about Christian mysticism–I hope it doesn’t send me down a Philip K. Dick Exegesis path, but I guess there are worse fates.
I would recommend this book with the warning that it isn’t perfect, but it still has parts that are thought-provoking and worth reading. I liked how this book dealt with characters who loved books as much as me, were unsympathetic, academically smart but not smart about themselves or their love lives. They could have all used a good dose of Dr. Barbara and less Derrida. The best parts of this book made me feel like the following passage (one of the book’s finest):
What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling.