October 27, 2011

Review: The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A day after I finished this, I'm still not sure about my overall reaction. There was much to like, but also a lingering letdown in the aftermath. First of all, The Marriage Plot is about real, believable, recognizable people, with realistic concerns and emotions. That's rare enough to recommend the book. The East Coast settings in the 1980s were also well handled, with appropriate details given but not too much as to overkill or sound like a research project. The story is engaging, with a strong narrative sense throughout, and anyone who studied English Literature, as I did, will recognize the academic, critical attitudes and follow the references. If you don't enjoy the intricacies of literary criticism, and don't have a grasp of semiotics, you may be lost for large sections of this novel. But I was happy, since I agreed with the literary character's approval of stories for people rather than books about books.

While this novel is more of an emotional study of relationships and self-actualization than an intellectual exercise, the characters are all intellectuals, and that may be off-putting for some, but I felt right at home with these (young) people. And while I can sympathize with the difficulties of maintaining a relationship with someone who is manic-depressive, the sections focusing on the vagaries of mental illness did feel tiresome after too long.

I also could relate to the religious journey one of the character undertakes, to an extent -- the quest to find meaning in some spiritual realm is one of the true tropes of the novel, perhaps even more than "the marriage plot," the search for a soul mate. So I could see where Eugenides was going, trying to have these two main thrusts of literature converge, but I'm not sure it was satisfying. Perhaps, of course, Eugenides is saying that our modern condition IS dissatisfaction, and our literature should reflect that, but I'm not convinced that's why I read novels. Also, the section focusing most strongly on the religious quest, the period taking place in India, was excerpted and revised as a short story in the New Yorker, which I read previously. While I enjoyed the story in the magazine, and it certainly whetted my appetite to buy and read this book, I was surprised to find myself disappointed when encountering the same section again in the novel. It was distracting to try to remember the discrepancies between the two versions, and the retread unfamiliarity dulled that section's effect.

Perhaps what prevents this from being a quite excellent book is simply a lack of cumulative potency. I was engaged by the characters and their stories while reading, and I was never bored, but I didn't take the narrative to heart. In its search for a contemporary version of marital or spiritual fulfillment, instead settling for a deconstruction of those novelistic conventions, I think it misses some archetypal power that sustained the original literature it strives to reinvent or comment on. Yes, our modern lives may not be epic, and so religious conversion or a marriage of love and fortune may no longer fully apply as a happy ending, but that doesn't stop us from craving personal mythos. If you want to deconstruct the romantic dream, another must be supplied, or we're disappointed, and perhaps bereft.

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