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4.0 out of 5 stars Eugenides' third best novel...but a good read, 30 July 2013
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This review is from: The Marriage Plot (Paperback)
Having delighted and fascinated so many readers and critics with The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, how could Jeffrey Eugenides ever live up to expectations for this novel? In fairness to him, he didn't even attempt to follow his previous novels, giving Detroit and Greece minor cameos and aiming for something of lightness and pace which could be read for fun. That is not to say this is a disposable book, but compared to his earlier efforts, it breezes past areas it may once have leaped into. A recurring theme in the earlier parts of the novel is the sheer pleasure of literature, and at its best moments, this novel is a delightful read.

The centre of the novel is occupied by Madeleine, a student with a major interest in nineteenth-century literature. Given the title of the novel and the themes raised early on, much of what follows can be predicted, although the exact twists and turns of the plot are too intricate for that. Madeleine has two suitors: the effervescent, intelligent (and bipolar) Leonard and the more complex Mitchell. By turns intense and laid back, Mitchell enjoys a largely platonic friendship with Madeleine, which is nevertheless haunted by his romantic feelings towards her. A Greek from Detroit, Mitchell is the one character here who could have walked out of an earlier Eugenides novel. As I struggled to grapple with the author's change in style, I clung to this character and although he always remained 'understandable' to me, this may just be because he seemed familiar. Someone who had never read one of his other novels may well have a different perception here.

Mitchell loses the games of the earlier part of the novel. Leonard wins Madeleine's affections, but he cannot be considered a 'winner' in any sense. Although he has a brilliant scientific mind and often shows a big heart, his bipolar disorder constantly drags him down. As he (and Madeleine) get pulled to pieces by his illness, Eugenides shows his strength in the novel. His portrayal of bipolar disorder is terrific, aptly showing the highs and lows of it. There are moments when Leonard's manic episodes seem almost exhilarating, but we are always invited to consider the negative side to these moments of ebullience. Ultimately, they are not worth it, as the destructive depression which follows is deeply entrenched and deeply disturbing. Leonard is transformed into a decrepit husk of a man, ruining his beautiful mind, his social life and eventually, his relationship with Madeleine.

Meanwhile, Mitchell is embroiled in another plot - a bizarre trip to Europe and India in which he reads lots of religious literature, has an accidental homoerotic encounter, and volunteers in an Indian hospice. Mitchell goes on a spiritual journey during his physical journey, creating a less interesting sub-plot which drags the story away from its core. True to form, though, everything is wrapped up, Madeleine and Leonard's disastrous honeymoon takes them to France, Mitchell's first port of call, and their paths inevitably cross in the end, at a party in New York.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I do wonder quite how much of its treatment of nineteenth-century writing about relationships (and its own appropriation of these themes) is intended ironically and how much of it is a genuine tribute to the likes of Jane Austen, but it does not really matter. Eugenides' exploration of relationships is entertaining and insightful but his writing is so seductive that it is hard to feel too cynical about love when it is written by his hand.
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