Hazel McHaffie

Literary Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides book, Middlesex, is one of my top twenty favourites, so I naturally pounced on his third novel, The Marriage Plot, when I saw it in a bargain book shop for £1. But … oh dear … it was only my Mastermind rule, (‘I’ve started so I’ll finish‘), that kept me reading. It’s very long (406 pages of tiny type), very dense, and for me not very satisfying. I try to be positive in recognition of the colossal amount of work that goes into writing a book, but this time I’m afraid I have to share more disappointment than praise.

Eugenides bookEssentially the story is of a love triangle set in Brown University in the 1980s with three idealistic young people in love with books and ideas. Leonard Bankhead is a clever scientist and charismatic loner. Madeleine Hanna is intensely attracted to him. But her old friend, theology student Mitchell Grammaticus is convinced Madeleine is destined to be with him. So far so standard. But this is no classic Victorian romance, and the book is literary rather than commercial fiction; I knew that, so why was I less than thrilled?

Eugenides is without doubt an accomplished author – he’s won prestigious prizes too – and he set the bar extremely high with his first novel, Middlesex. In The Marriage Plot his inclusion of wide-ranging and erudite detail – of place, literature, mental health, science, psychology, politics, history – is impressive. There was even an aspect of the story that was of particular interest to me: the unravelling of an illness, bipolar disorder, or as it was back then, manic depression, which he handles with enviable authenticity and sensitivity. I’ve seen the devastation this illness can cause, and Eugenides has captured its modus operandi without allowing it to override the central narrative thrust … goodness, I’ve adopted ponderous language myself now! Sorry.

There’s plenty of humour in the book too. At one point an eccentric elderly female scientist is interviewed following the announcement that she’s just won the Nobel prize:

‘Dr MacGregor, where were you when you heard the news?’

‘I was asleep. Just like I am right now.’

‘Could you tell us what your scientific work is all about?’

‘I could. But then you’d be asleep.’

‘What do you plan to do with the money?’

‘Spend it.’

And plenty of clever throw-away lines:

‘ … he didn’t so much run the class as observe it from behind the one-way mirror of his opaque personality.’

‘… moving in her hovercraft way owing to the long hem of her robe …’

‘Chaouen was painted light blue to blend in with the sky. Even the flies couldn’t find it.’

But as I ploughed laboriously through it I could identify increasingly with the heroine’s sentiments. Early on she attends a Semiotics class and gets bogged down in the abstruse use of language. She goes to the library to grab an ordinary comprehensible nineteenth century novel ‘to restore herself to sanity’. Ah, here was a story she could understand without effort, with people in it, something happening to them in a place resembling the world as she knew it. ‘How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative!’

At times with Eugenides’ book I felt myself drowning in the complexity of the allusions and profound thoughts. It just felt like too much hard work with too little reward. And I found it hard to care about the three central characters. Yes, I too wanted to escape into wickedly enjoyable narrative. How very low brow of me! But hey, come on, I did persevere to the bitter end. And the knitting for good causes grew apace.

As a reward to myself I bought a stack of more promising reading from another charity sale (it’s been a very busy week with special events for three charities I’m involved with). Goddard, Grisham and Coben are tried and tested favourite authors. Baldacci I’ve yet to sample. Joys in store … mmm.

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