Sunday, December 11, 2011

"The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides

"The Marriage Plot": that timeless literary tale, most often related by Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontes, in which a young woman needs/wants to be married in order to be happy, but is prevented for one reason or another.

The premise of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Pulitzer winner for Middlesex), revolves around the seemingly antiquated plotline so idolized by women.

The story takes place at Brown University, where the heroine, Madeleine, is pursued (to no avail) by a frowsily dapper religious scholar while she pursues a relationship with a one-time collegiate playboy, Leonard. The playboy also has bipolar disorder, aka manic depression.

Whereas in Austen or Gaskell, social class or financial abilities kept lovers apart, in this case, it is Leonard's mental illness that prevents their happiness.

The Marriage Plot explores ground most often covered in hot-pink chick-lit books with smarmy-looking skeletons in Manolos on the cover. Obviously, as the understated white and black cover attests, Eugenides' treatment is vastly superior. The ground covered, to spell it out, is the creation of "the friend zone" by modern females - characterizing male friends as asexual or non-romantic, and suffered by uber-religious Mitchell - and the relationship conflicts created by living with a person of the opposite sex to whom you are not married.

As with Middlesex, Eugenides places the reader into the mind of a character who has a disorder with which we are (most likely) not personally acquainted. Calliope, the main character in Middlesex, had a rare genetic mutation that meant she/he was a male without external sex organs, and the story covers how she/he came to be born with the mutation, how it was discovered, and how Calliope eventually chose to cope with it.

In the case of The Marriage Plot, the reader experiences Leonard's manic swings, his all-consuming depression, and his battle with mood-altering/stabilizing drugs, in this case lithium. As with the characters in the book, each crescendoing burst of energy on Leonard's part leaves us wondering how it will affect his life, and the lives of those around him.

The Marriage Plot wasn't what I would call an "easy read," but then Middlesex wasn't particularly easy, in many parts. This latest offering from Eugenides is less fantastical than his two previous offerings, but he seems to be mellowing as his writing progresses.

That being said, I have to confess that I prefer Middlesex - one of my all-time favorite reads - over The Marriage Plot. Get ready for the over-used word, again. The Marriage Plot just wasn't as compelling as the other books I've read lately (I'm in the midst of The English Patient, as we speak - er - type).

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