Friday, October 4, 2013


I thought it had only been a week or two since my last entry.  Imagine my surprise when I opened the site to find it has been in excess of a month. This is what happens in the life of a school teacher/writer.  In the summer, I'm a writer/school teacher, but come late August, those two occupations change seats, at least for a while until I get my sea legs under me, so to speak.

I've been so busy with school that it took me several weeks to work through a book I would polish off in a matter of a few days during the summer break.  Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot was worth the wait.

I actually received the book as a door prize at a teacher conference over the summer.  There were several titles from which to choose, but I was drawn to this for two reasons. First, I'd heard a rave review from a colleague of Middlesex, Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize winning earlier work. Second, according to the blurb on the back, it hearkened back to the thoughtful yet romantic plots of Jane Austen and her contemporaries. Upon reading, I found that assessment to be bordering on true.  I heard echoes of Austen, but faint ones. She's certainly invoked regularly enough, in that the protagonist of the book, Madeleine Hanna, is writing her senior thesis on the marriage plot as popularized by female novelists like Austen and George Eliot.

As in many of those novels of old, the plot circles around a love triangle between Madeleine and two of her schoolmates, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus.  Both men are deep thinkers, though Leonard seems to have the greater appeal to women in that he's seen as dark and brooding.  Turns out he's struggling with powerful mental illness.  Mitchell, on the other hand, is more socially awkward, though equally brilliant.

Not surprisingly, she chooses the ruminative Leonard over the somewhat socially inept Mitchell.  Her choice, as seems obvious early on, is nothing short of disastrous.  While I had great sympathy for Leonard and his losing battle with a disease that was ravaging his mind, I never got to a point where I really liked him on any level.  But I may be bringing too much baggage to the story that makes it harder for me to be completely sympathetic to his plight.

It feels like Eugenides wants us to root for Mitchell and Madeleine.  Even their names are cutely alliterative. When the inevitable happens, we're expecting Maddie to turn to the much more well balanced if somewhat less romantic Mitchell, which she does, though, in keeping with 21st century sensibilities, it's not that simple. The ending might well be what Austen would have written if she were working today instead of in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

One word of warning.  Have your phone or a computer on hand to look stuff up.  The vocabulary is at times challenging, as are the seemingly endless references to philosophies, philosophers, and esoteric social movements.  Especially in the sections of the book that concentrate on Mitchell, a religion major with an extremely philosophical bent, who spends a lot of time contemplating the meaning of life, the world, and the relationship between humanity and the divine.   I'm pretty well read on a relatively broad array of subjects, but there were times I felt a little ignorant. I did learn some things, though.    

I recommend this book.  Set in the 1980s, a time in which I did a lot of growing up, it rang true to that time period.  The characters felt real, genuinely struggling to cope with a turbulent time in their lives as well as a time of great social change.  One thing it did have that Austen never did was a small amount of graphic sexual activity, though it was quite a small amount, along with some strong language.  It didn't keep me from enjoying the book, but it's nice to know going in for those of a more delicate nature than my own.

Enjoy, and if you do read it, get in touch so we can talk about it!

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