Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffery Eugenides

Not too long ago I read a piece on NPR about Jeffery Eugenides new novel The Marriage Plot , in which he lamented not being a writer of a time when “social constrictions were still normative and they could still write marriage plots.” He admitted that it is impossible to write a marriage plot now, but that he basically wanted to “traffic in the same ideas.” Admittedly, though, this information changed my reading of the novel quite a bit. I kept trying to see it as an attempt at reviving the Victorian era romance, and seeing as those are some of the novels dearest to my heart, I really couldn’t resist the parallels and comparisons. 

Like any good marriage plot, this novel is rife with social satire, subdued passion, and class issues. Set in the 1980’s at Brown University (Because where else to revive the marriage plot than an Ivy League?), our heroine is the lovely Ms. Madeline Hanna. A rich girl from Prettybrook, New Jersey, who struggles with the classic young-adult divide between being normative and being divergent -- as she, like many of us, falls just short of exceptional -- and who often uses her looks to get her way. In this classic love triangle her suitors are her sometimes boyfriend, the infuriatingly brilliant, impoverished, self-absorbed and manic-depressive Leonard Bankhead. And Mitchell Grammaticus, a young man too intelligent for his aspirations of divinity; Mitchell longs for God, but would happily settle for the affections of Madeline Hanna. 

In the beginning of the novel, I was wondering if I even wanted to make it through. I found Madeline to be petulant, and I really didn’t get what she saw in Leonard, who I just wanted to shake furiously and say “I don’t care if you had a hard childhood, that doesn’t give you license to be an asshole!”, and Mitchell was too bland to make up for my misgivings. My initial feeling was that, in attempting to revive something anachronistic, he succeeded in creating a novel whose characters fell short of being as lovable as any of Austen’s and whose plot was too simple to be as engaging as that of Dickens or Emily Bronte. Then I kept reading. 

Madeline Hanna has many rules. She tries to stay away from people who are depressed, she will shamelessly come onto a guy, but he absolutely has to make the first move, and they, of course, at least have to be her intellectual equals (except when she dated that male model, but who could blame her?). It’s this sort of idealism and narrow-mindedness that make you feel a lot of empathy for Madeline and her struggles with love and intellect. Madeline is an English major for, as Jeffrey Eugenides puts it “the purest of reasons”, because she loves to read, and she particularly loves Victorian literature. At the same time, she struggles with ideas such as love and romance. Feeling they’re too trite for someone as modern and well educated as she, and Leonard only adds fuel to those blazes of self-doubt, with his constant analyzing of love as a concept itself, deriding it and her feelings, because, as Eugenides so aptly states, “College isn’t like real life. In real life, people drop names for their recognition. In college, people drop names for their obscurity.” And it was once Madeline and Leonard broke-up for the first time, and we meet her crying in her bedroom with a book and a jar of peanut butter, that I was with Madeline all the way. 

But listen to me go on about Madeline and her lovelorn angst! There is so much more going on in this book than that. We have Leonard, a very well devised character whose greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. Leonard’s manic-depression, it is hinted at, is part of his charm. So many people love Leonard, and it’s because when he’s up he’s on top of the world. This idea that Leonard’s mental illness is a benefit to him as well as a curse is a huge part of the story and a very interesting take on the disease. In fact, it makes the fact that Leonard can be such an awful person almost expected, in that sort of “oh, you know how geniuses are” sort of way, and at times I did feel deeply for him, even if I could never fully forgive him his wrong doings.

Then we have Mitchell, who being Greek, from Michigan, and having done spiritual service in Calcutta, is obviously the most autobiographical of the characters. Mitchell’s struggles with God and his dueling desires to let go and believe and to value his natural inclination for reason are something that I believe many people can relate to. 

Layered over all of these explorations of heart, mind, and spirit is a healthy dose of satire and a lot of love. While Eugenides seems to be constantly poking fun at the drama of youth and politics of academia, he also treats his characters very well. At this novel’s best, it is a novel that is very aware of itself. It is aware of the fact that its characters are stereotypes, but that they are also multi-faceted and deeply flawed. Aware that the marriage plot no longer exists, but that it still exists in our imaginations and therefore we long for it. 

Ultimately though, while I think Eugenides did as excellent a job as anyone could trying to bring out classist romance in a time of social melding, it’s his insights into human emotion that will make this novel memorable. 

Jeffery Eugenides has the talent to do what I believe is the signature of any great novelist – he is able to describe me in way that I never knew I needed to be described. He gets at the heart of an idea or feeling that had been lying dormant inside of me waiting to be voiced. Not an emotion that I was already aware of that he describes more aptly, many people can do that, but one that I didn’t even know I was longing to meet. Eugenides' insights into the nature of love and longing are priceless, and for me, were worth every second of the novel. 

While this book didn’t blow me away the way Middlesex did, I would recommend it. Maybe it won’t become one of the great literary works of our time, but I did actually end a conversation once by saying “Okay, I really gotta go. One of the main character’s suitors got a letter from her, and I really want to know if she loves him or not.” I’d say that’s a victory if I ever heard one.

No Frigate Like It

My first admission is this - I like my Kindle. With that said, I'll get to those aspects that I like first.

So, honestly, how much do you love Jane Austen? Or Shakespeare, maybe? Or Dickens, Twain, and Wilde? The absolute best thing about the Kindle is the fact that books whose copyright statutes have passed are available for free. Within minutes, I was holding in the palm of my hand the complete works of Jane Austen, William Shakespeare and Emily Bronte. I was absolutely giddy in that moment. I spent hours going through and skimming sonnets and passages I remember loving, and I didn't even have to move. I mean, that's a dream right? You get the desire to read a classic, and suddenly it just appears in front of you and weighs ounces. It's kind of like magic.

There's also that 'weighing ounces' factor. I've been in the habit of carrying a book with me for a long time, and honestly, I think it may be at least part of why my left shoulder is always tense. With the Kindle, however, the tiny little contraption slides snugly into my purse, and it weighs less than that of my wallet.

Lastly, for the rare textbook that you can get on the Kindle, it's pretty amazing for us students. It's cheaper, faster, and by its very nature I can carry that and a book I am not being forced to read without killing my back. Sure, I can't sell it back, but there is a significant price difference already, and at least if I don't want it taking up space on my shelf later I can easily delete. I actually think the education aspect of e-readers is going to be their greatest contribution.  Imagine a world where our backs aren't a mess by the time we're twenty because of lugging text books around. Or where you never have to curse yourself while sitting on the bus for leaving your reading for the week at home on nightstand.

Oh, and the fact that when you look-up a word it highlights it, is nothing to scoff at.  Because honestly, who has time to go back and look up the words they underlined (you know you do it too)?

All of those wondrous things said, I do have my issues with it.

Firstly, on a more practical note, at least for the touch screen Kindle, there is an issue with page turning. You tap the page to turn it, and as long as you tap in the right place, it will simply turn the page for you. But if you accidently tap somewhere else, or twice by accident, you end up in an entirely different part of the book. Sure, sometimes you lose your place while reading a book. You drop it by accident, or something distracts you and your finger slips and thumbs you forward. That's pretty few and far between, though. With my Kindle it happens at least three times for about every half and hour I use it. And honestly, who wants to make a concerted effort at page turning when they're engrossed in something they're reading?

Second, I like to flip forward in my books to see how much I have left till the end of the chapter, and you can't do that with a Kindle. When I get that urge and I can't do it, the e-reader suddenly feels very alien and I find myself rushing to get to the end of the chapter. In fact, navigating between parts of the Kindle in general is the worst aspect of the Kindle, and arguably the thing I like about it the least. I had a travel guide on it while I was in New Orleans recently, and it was incredibly frustrating. The maps in the book were broken up into quarters, so I couldn't actually view them all at once, and going between subsections of the book was next to impossible.

More than anything else though, an e-reader just isn't a book. I'm not comforted by or taken to a far off place just by looking at my Kindle on my nightstand. I can't cuddle up with my Kindle, or run my fingers over it's pages. I can't look amused at old notes I've taken years later (Okay, yes, you can highlight and take notes with a Kindle, but they just compile into a list that you can go through and jump to that section. It's just not the same). And I know it's not trying to be a book necessarily, but it falls very short of being equal. There's no wear on it. One of my favorite possessions was my Central America travel guide whose pages were bright orange because clay got on them from the site of the archaeological dig on which I was working. I brought a piece of Mayan history physically back on my book. Something as special as that is not only impossible with an e-reader, there's a good chance it would break it.

Bottom line, you just can’t replicate the physical world in zeroes and ones. I’m grateful for all that technology has given me (and I also think that it will bring about the end of humanity, but you know, grateful in a near sited way), but books have lived lives with the people who own them. They take on personalities beyond their texts and, for some of us, were the best friends we had growing up and sometimes still are. Until they find a way to reproduce an e-reader that can grow with it’s owner the way a book can, I just don’t think it’ll ever really be a substitute for those of us that were raised on books. The reality is, though, that the more widespread e-readers get, the younger generations will find a place in their lives for e-readers, and hopefully their hearts in a way I just can’t understand.


Okay, so one of my very ambitious goals for the next year is to start a book review blog.  I'll be reviewing a book a month for the next year. This may not sound terribly ambitious to you, but when you're in grad school, planning on having any free time at all seems ambitious.

I'm going to be focusing on contemporary literature (anything written in the last 10 years) as I think anything older than that has been vetted already, and probably doesn't need nor desire my opinion.

I'll be posting my reviews on the last day of every month. If anyone has a book in mind that they'd like me to review, do let me know! This month I'll be reviewing The Marriage Plot, by Jeffery Eugenides.

As a premiere bonus, I've decided to write a review of the Kindle I received for Christmas, which is posted above. What makes this Kindle review different from any other Kindle review? It's written by a self-professed luddite who loves books. There are very many Kindle reviews written by people who will compare and contrast all of the different e-readers out there for you. This is not that. It's written for those of us who are hesitant to give into the cold unfamiliarity of technology, leaving our precious books behind (but for those of you who will read this and actually do know something about technology - or at least different Kindle models - I have the Kindle Touch 3G).