"There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel." Anthony Trollope.
It's the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead - charismatic loner and college Darwinist - suddenly turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus - who's been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange - resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.
Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they have learned. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can't escape the secret responsible for Leonard's seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.
Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.
©2011 Jeffrey Eugenides (P)2011 HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
"Not quite Middlesex but..."
I loved both Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, and The Marriage Plot doesn't disappoint- however it isn't quite the intricate saga that Middlesex was.
Madelaine is about to graduate from Uni having studied English Lit and Language, in particular the novels of the 19th century which more often than not centre around the courting, love triangles and eventual marriage of their protagonists. She loses herself in a relationship with the 'wrong' guy who she idolises due to his incredible mind but who also unfortunately suffers from severe depression and mental illness. She in turn rejects the advances of the possibly 'right' guy, Mitchell, who indeed also has his problems and so unfolds a story of a modern love triangle. The book looks human psychology, the naivety and meaning of love, the search for spiritual enlightenment (is there such thing as an unselfish act?) and the stages and effects of mental illness.
I loved this book because it reminded me of my state of mind whilst at university and during my first proper relationship. I also loved the insight into each character, not one of them flawless or indeed even very likable but all three vulnerable and very real. It reminded me very much of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, just really great American Literature which has something to say about society in a very quiet and therefore genuine way.
And because a Audiobook is only as good as it's narrator, I would also have to comment that David Pittu was excellent and made a great book worth listening to.
"Hooked but no thanks to the narration"
For me it was nice to revisit the 80s in a part of the world I lived in for many years and I suspect that has a lot to do with that hook as I found myself instantly transported to familiar streets and places. It was my first experience of this writer and probably (subject to a different narrator) won't be the last. There is a quality to the writing which is absolutely excellent; the author engages all the senses from the stomach turning experiences of Mitchell volunteering with Mother Theresa to the less than fastidious Leonard's ratty apartment. His exploration of some of the themes, particularly mental illness, and its treatment in that time period was thought provoking. I found the way the backstory elements were woven into the narrative to be quite masterful. The plot though, was a little dull, and I did get to the point about 2/3 of the way through where I really couldn't have cared less what happened to most of the characters, particularly Madeleine.Towards the end I found myself wondering whether the author really liked them himself, although I suspect the narration didn't help here because the female characters sounded whiny, pretentious and irritating. I guess it is all a matter of personal taste.
I'm a big fan of this author but struggled through this due to the narrator - whenever he affected a female voice he sounded whiny and camp, and any of the big ideas that might have been being discussed were reduced to some kind of awful pretention - maybe that's the point, they are at first extremely self indulged college students to be fair. But the women came off really badly, sounding bitchy and dim - even the main character - while discussing Barthes and semiotics, like Philosopher Barbies. The men didn't come off much better, sounding creepy and self satisfied. Just shows how much a narrator matters. Having said that, it does get better and I occasionally go back to it and am less repulsed as the characters get older, even though I really don't care about them, they sometimes say something interesting.
"5 Stars for the Novel, 1 Star for the Reading!"
I didn't want to mark the novel down for the awful reading by David Pittu, because I really enjoyed the writing. But Pittu's reading is really, really awful. He is fine at the straight narration, but as another reviewer pointed out he CANNOT do women voices--they are all uniformly high pitched, whiny, and camp--it's very very distracting. In fact, I ended up buying the novel just so I could read the book in peace!
This was a disappointment after Middlesex and it has nothing of that novel's layers, complexities and humour. I found the first part rather boring and its juvenile characters with their narcissistic obsessions irritating rather than enlightening. It didn't give me any insight into my own (distant) university days - I just hope I wasn't as awful but I probably was just as wrapped up in my own internal monologue. The would-be intellectual discussions were pretentious and I wasn't sure they were meant to be. However, I hung on and by the second part and was more involved with the characters and the exploration through the two men of a kind of madness and a search for spiritual meaning. The conclusion seems to be that only the mad can find spiritual meaning in their experiences and that true spiritual exploration brings you back into the material world. I was left feeling that the female character had been shortchanged by both men with their intellectual pretensions - but maybe they were only reflecting back her own sterile intellectual obsessions with dead eighteen and nineteenth literature from a culture not her own. This is ultimately depressing and although it has left me with something to think about I would not chose to listen to any more by the author. The reader is excellent and without him I don't think I'd have persevered.
"Intelligent, engaging and moving"
The main character is a young woman studying English Lit in the mid 1980s. Having done that myself, I immediately connected with this novel. She's also a huge fan of Victorian literature. Ditto. The novel follows Madeleine and the men in her life during their undergraduate years and a year or two beyond that. It plunged me back to that time of my life like Proust's madeleine itself. So I absolutely loved it. I also thoroughly enjoyed the plot and character development through the novel.
If you are interested in English lit, literary theory, and being a young student in the '80s, you'll probably love it too. If this world is all a bit alien to you, but you were once young and in love, you may well still enjoy it as an insightful and intelligent novel, beautifully written. The characters really come across as real people, each flawed but beautiful in their own ways.
And did I mention that it is a times very funny?
Note that it is a totally different novel to Middlesex. I loved that too, but this is a very different novel.
"David Pittu brings this alive"
I have not read either of Eugenides's previous novels but absolutely loved this and didn't want it to finish - feeling immersed in the lives of the protagonist and at times feeling so stressed by events in the novel that I had to turn off. The most stunning bit of writing for me dealt with the theme of mental illness - specifically manic depression - and what that (might) feel like for the individual with the symptoms and what (might) influence(s) the choices they make regarding their medication and their life. I have no idea whether the analysis in the book might be accurate but it made me think a lot.
Whilst it would have taken me far less time to read this myself than listen to the audiobook, David Pittu's rendition is stunning. He really brings the characters to life and imbues each character with their own personality through his use of different voice tones, accents etc. I loved this.
This is a book better heard than read. There are problems - slight - with the characters who are not as bright and gifted as Eugenides insists they are: that they are not is what makes the novel so moving. And it's a rare contemporary novel that examines peacably and seriously the religious impulse; it is this and not the marriage plot that most effectively energises the novel. All this said, the reading by David Pittu is exemplary, and raises it far higher than it manages to do on the page. It's a beautifully paced and well-realised performance.
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