“There were some books that reach through the noise of life to grab you by the collar and speak only of the truest things.”
It’s amazing how a book can so accurately describe itself as if it’s as simple as staring back at its very reflection on the mirror. I don’t know what kind of sorcery Eugenides is on to always incorporate this truth in his writing. At seventeen I was mesmerized with his ‘The Virgin Suicides’, terrified for days on end about the haunting, cryptic story of the beautiful Lisbon sisters. I can say that I still haven’t quite moved on–the film adaptation by the cooler-than-thou Sofia Coppola didn’t help either. Like Trip Fontaine, I’m still thinking about them after all these years.
This is why I was scared to start reading The Marriage Plot. Reading another novel from an author we loved once makes us afraid that we’re probably setting our expectations unreasonably high; we’re never ready for the possibility of them falling short, of us being probably mistaken about how great they truly are.
But I’ve read on anyway. Fact of life: One can never go wrong with a Eugenides.
I can understand why some people regard this book as pretentious and over-indulgent. It felt that way for the first fifty or so pages, but then after that, I’ve come to understand why this is the very intention of the writer: Eugenides is painting us a picture of the elitist generation prevailing in colleges during that critical period at the end of such a revolutionary decade. Eugenides writes of the many verges, of the many transitions during that turn of the century, and the way of writing he used is necessary, no, essential, to be consistent with the portrait he was drawing. It’s high-brow and snooty because that’s what those times felt like–it feels like everyone and everything in the world is out to intimidate the hell out of you.
And then there’s our three main characters: three college graduates coming from three different backgrounds and lines of study, so wonderfully woeful and damaged. Jeffrey Eugenides’ trademark, as we all very well know by now. Madeleine Hanna, beautiful English Major, is the very epitome of idealism and the bewildering promise of being young. The girl who reads the right kinds of books, gets all the good grades, knows the way to success and all the prerequisite model student whathaveyous but for some reason does not know how to go after what she wants. Sometimes she’s not even sure what she wants. She’s still secretly hung up with her Victorian, Austen-esque principles on love that she at some point found herself struggling with the overwhelming popularity of Dadaism–the seemingly antithesis to everything she believes in. Liking her is easy–her reluctance to get out of her shell of romanticism and rose-colored glasses is too familiar, hitting all the proper notes to earning a reader’s sympathy. It took some time, but she soon learns it the hard way:
“..It took courage to let things fall apart so beautifully.”
She’s fallen head over heels for Leonard Bankhead, the charismatic loner and college Darwinist, in a relationship that is just as intellectual as it is erotic–the very ingredients of a complex love affair that we all know too well is doomed for tragedy. I loved how Eugenides referenced books to allude to Madeleine’s feelings during their first break-up, in which he quotes Roland Barthes to describe in a nutshell the greatest misery of falling in love.
“The lover`s discourse was of an extreme solitude. The solitude was extreme because it wasn’t physical. It was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, the most solitary of places.”
And then see here how they’ve changed from love-struck college sweethearts into a mature, live-in couple mistaking dependency for affection. Behold the dysfunction and its dark, all-encompassing claws:
“When you stood between somebody you loved and death, it was hard to be awake and it was hard to sleep.”
Such is the dilemma of every choice they’re making, in absolute awareness that the consequences are dim and will never be in their favor. Madeleine may be as sensible as she can be, but she holds on to Leonard, to keep herself and her life together. Because she thinks this is how it’s supposed to be, even if it’s not what she wants it to be. Or something along those lines.
My favorite character is Mitchell Grammaticus (Dude, that’s one kick-ass surname!)–the brillant Religion Studies student and doting suitor to Madeleine Hannah. Oh cheesecakes, this boy is one fine hopeless romantic. Second lead syndrome, anyone? I love his mind and his temperament and his views about faith and the world in general. Also, his one-liners that suckerpunches seamlessly to the heart like:
“Every letter was a love letter.”
“Enlightenment is the extinction of Desire.”
“People don’t save other people. People save themselves.”
I swear, I could talk to someone like him for days and I’d just listen and jot down everything he says. Note to self: Why do I find this hot? Is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with Madeleine Hanna for failing to see how Mitchell is the right guy that will love her right? Why do we always neglect the good ones for the bad ones? Mitchell, in modern internet-speak, is our beloved poster-boy for that dreaded place of romantic abandon–the friendzone. Agh, unrequited love! It hurts so good!
And the ending, you guys! My heart wasn’t ready for that exquisite heartbreak! Dear Jeffrey Eugenides: why must you end it like that? I loved the Marriage Plot, even though it made me sad for days, even though I’m still wondering up until now about what could have been and what I could have done if I were in their place. This book made me look at my own life and made me realize I’m not in any way better than them: it’s still a cruel world and it’s still a hard time for dreamers, and now, more than ever, it’s still so hard to love and be loved.