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Customer Review

70 of 75 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars And Sometimes They Were Very Sad, 2 Dec. 2011
This review is from: The Marriage Plot (Hardcover)
Not having reading anything by Eugenides before, I was curious to discover what has made him a Pullitzer prize-winner.

This is the story of the triangular relationship between three young Americans who meet at university in the early 1980s: Madeleine, a diligent student of English literature, but lacking in a sense of direction, falls for the brilliant, charismatic but manic depressive biologist, Leonard. Meanwhile, after a brief friendship which comes to nothing, Mitchell loves her from afar, and seeks escapism in religious theory, and a circuitous journey to India to work as a volunteer for Mother Theresa.

The novel is a modern take on the "marriage plot", seen by one of Madeleine's English professors as the dominant theme of novels up to 1900, based on the idea that women could only achieve success through marrying men, ideally with money, after which they "lived happily ever after" or endured their fate, since there was no easy escape route via divorce.

The author's technical talent is displayed through some vivid and imaginative descriptions, and his sharp ear for dialogue. The recreation of the events and attitudes of the 1980s rings true, and brings back memories for those who lived through them. Many scenes are funny or poignant. In particular, the analysis of Leonard's manic depression in its various phases strikes close to the bone and often makes for unbearably painful reading.

Ironically, it is the at times almost manic nature of the writing which weakens the structure of the novel, so that the whole may seem less than the sum of the parts. Eugenides spirals off at a tangent where his imagination leads him. For instance, in the early chapters he launches into structuralism and specific works like Barthes' "A Lover's Discourse" without considering or caring how many readers will be able or willing to follow him. In fact, I only needed to "google" for a few minutes to fill the essential gaps in my knowledge, or to check later that the custom-printed wallpaper on Madeleine's bedroom wall was based on a real set of stories about "Madeline" by Ludwig Bemelman. When it came to the genetics of yeast I just let Leonard's explanations wash over me. However, although I have learned more about literature from this book, and extended my vocabulary ("chancre", "pentiment", etc), I feel that the lengthy digressions have been at the expense of the narrative drive.

There is also the author's tendency to meander back and forth in time, which means that many important events are reported, rather than enacted, which would have made them more dramatic.

I was left feeling that I had read a series of on occasion brilliant short stories or thumbnail sketches, held together by a loose plot which at times seems to be about the pain, loss and waste caused by manic depression, although I am sure that is not meant to be the main point. If Eugenides had focused more tightly on the three main characters and developed their interactions more fully, I think I would have cared more about their dilemmas, particularly Madeleine's and Mitchell's.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 25 Feb 2012 00:35:58 GMT
k m turner says:
Excellent review which means i will put it further down my to-buy list but Read middlesex - it is brilliant.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Feb 2012 09:31:53 GMT
Antenna says:
Thanks for the positive feedback.

Posted on 7 Jul 2012 19:48:06 BDT
i liked the meanderings backwards and forewords. snippets of information is how one finds out about people in real life. And it also kept the links between the characters going. A most enjoyable book. Should have put the reading list at the end for quick reference!!!!

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Jul 2012 18:02:59 BDT
Antenna says:
Thanks for the feedback. I think I meant that "meandering" can destroy "dramatic effect" and that this seems to be the case here, not that it may not have other advantages. Not sure that your second sentence applies to my review.

Posted on 3 Jan 2013 23:19:58 GMT
I think this is an excellent review which puts its finger on the weaknesses of the book without neglecting its strengths. What Eugenides needed was a good editor, and Antenna would have been the ideal person for the task.

In reply to an earlier post on 4 Jan 2013 10:11:56 GMT
Antenna says:
It's nice of you to say so, although the unlikely event of someone like me being let loose on his text would probably have destroyed the creativity along with the meanderings.
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