Jack asked me one evening what book I was reading and what it was about. I happened to be reading the last book of Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffery Eugenides, The Marriage Plot, which came out a year ago.
The second part of the question, “What is this book about?” requires a longer answer. As I described the plot of the novel, I realized how unfair I was being. There is a lot more to the book than the plot, and there is a lot more to the plot than three main characters falling in love in a love triangle. I wouldn’t call this a romantic comedy, or even bother with ‘chick-lit,’ which is the impression Jack was in after I tried to sum up the 400 pages long novel in 2 sentences. That would not be fair to 9 long years of his work on this book.
Jack is not alone in his judgment (from my poor description). A quick browse on Good Reads will show two main types of reviews: very positive ones and equally negative ratings with people stopping 70 pages into the book, returning it to the library and calling it a poorly done rom com.
A character in the novel gets asked the same question as I did: What’s the book about? His response is this. “The idea of a book being “about” something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was “about” anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things.” (If this sounds pretentious to you, what else would you expect from a Derrida-reading English major playing cool at Brown University in 1980s?)
Another character revisits this idea by saying in a class discussion that “Books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books…how do you write about something…when all of the writing that’s been done on the subject has robbed you of any originality of expression?”
That’s when all the signals fly out at you. With heavy intertextuality, you could say this novel is a post modern take on classics that have centered around marriage. The novel quickly mentions since the beginning the senior thesis of the protagonist Madeleine, examining the marriage plot in Austin and James.
If you stop reading at the end of the first part, it’s a cute, fun campus love novel with an empty, light tease on deconstructionism, where a cerebral, tall, dark and handsome lad ends up with a beautiful, witty lady of wealthy background after an obligatory rough patch.
But that’s not where Eugenides chooses to end the novel. A seemingly generic love novel with WASP protagonists is a deliberate choice to refer back to the old literature as a point of distinction. The long pages he has devoted to semiotics is more than an embellishment to a shell of a love triangle. Deliberation seems to be the key. It’s Eugenides you’re talking about.
In particular, I would like to draw attention to the criticism made against this novel in the rendering of Madeleine’s character. Criticism comes something along the line of this: despite the frequent lip service paid to feminism, Madeleine’s dilemma comes down to two suitors and her character recedes the more constructed facades of the two males.
At the end of the novel, the two men have not really resolved anything. They have figured out what they do not want to become but without any other alternatives. Mitchell finds out he doesn’t want to go to a divinity school, Leonard disappears into the wilderness altogether. Madeleine on the other hand has found her literary voice and a career direction: that she’s in fact a Victorian. Then there’s also this implication that deconstructionism is a mere phase – intriguing but a fad nonetheless.
More importantly, what is so un-feminist of Madeleine just because her character’s identity is closely juxtaposed against the identities of the two male lovers? Isn’t ‘Who should you love?’ an equally compelling factor in one’s coming of age as ‘What kind of life do you want to lead’? Instead of viewing women’s marital decisions through the lens of hypergamy, why can’t we see the choice of a woman’s life partner as a fundamental self-examination and reflection of her values, morals and aspirations?
So you will probably be very disappointed with Eugenides if you have read his previous work (I haven’t), already know he is brilliant and see nothing but a generic, formulaic love story line because you’re reading it as a generic, formulaic love story line. But he seems to be saying so much more. How much you enjoy this book will largely depend on how seriously you take the author’s deliberation in crafting the novel the way he has now.