The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – Book Review

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Published by Farrar, Straus,and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan

From the publisher:

It’s the early 1980s—the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, 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 tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead—charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy—suddenly turns up in a semiotics 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.

Madeleine is a fantastically familiar character to book lovers, and the connection becomes particularly poignant as her situation mirrors the marriage plot, that hallmark of her favorite literature. By reviving that form and making an English major the heroine, Eugenides creates in The Marriage Plot a fabulously meta narrative. Meta, though, is not enough to carry a book, and fortunately in The Marriage Plot, it doesn’t have to.

In many ways, what Eugenides is attempting here is quieter and less ambitious than Middlesex (really, how could it not be less ambitious than a multi-generational epic with a hermaphrodite as the main character?), but no less wonderful. Eugenides brings all three of his main characters to life in a wonderful, flawed way. For much of the book, I found myself greatly preferring Madeleine and Mitchell, as they narrate the majority of the story. Leonard, with his bipolar disorder, is a much tougher character to get a good feel for, but once Eugenides allows him to tell his own story, he becomes just as human and accessible, even in his mania. The writing is constantly engaging, by the second section The Marriage Plot becomes increasingly difficult to put down, as infused as it is with human emotion, and as invested as the reader becomes.

Do not pick up The Marriage Plot unless you are ready to become emotionally involved in the lives of the characters, but do pick it up if you are looking for a fabulous read. It is a very strong, well-written book, sure to appeal to book lovers.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Personal copy.

* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer – Book Review

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin

I read The Uncoupling for an episode of What’s Old is New. You can check out our interview with Meg about the book, and if you’ve already read it, check out our spoilery outtakes.

Stellar Plains, New Jersey is a relatively happy town. Dory Lang and her husband Robby are certainly happy, even if they do wish that their teenage daughter would read a bit more. Still, they are happy with their lives, with their jobs as high school teachers, with their relationship. Then Fran Heller enters all of their lives as the high school’s new drama teacher and decides to put on Lysistrata as the school play. Suddenly, Dory has no desire to sleep with her husband, which has never been the case in the entire time they have been together. She isn’t the only one, either, all over town women are turning away from their husbands, boyfriends, and lovers. Suddenly the little flaws that have been overlooked in everyone’s relationships are front and center, and sex is nowhere to be found.

At its height, it was a knockout of a spell, fortified by a classic work of literature – a play that had lasted since 411 B.C., and which lasted even now, in this age of very different gratifications. -p. 246

Wolitzer’s prose is phenomenal. I am typically a reader who requires a mixture of good writing and good plot and character development in order to love a book, but I think I could have loved The Uncoupling even if the plot had been completely uninteresting, the writing was good enough to suck me in and keep me reading compulsively all on its own. The quote above is, I think, a perfect example of the compelling style of prose – in addition to containing a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.

And then there was the fact that the prose was not the only thing that The Uncoupling had going for it. Certainly the book uses the famous Aristophanes play, Lysistrata, as a jumping off point, but it is not about a sex strike in order to end war. Instead, it is an examination of love and sex, of relationships and desire, and how the waxing and waning of one element can have such great consequence for another. So many relationships are examined that a reader would be hard-pressed to become emotionally involved in more than one or two (likely those of Dory and Robby, or their daughter Willa and her boyfriend Eli), but all of the characters are fully realized, even those with extremely minor roles, which lends a richness to the story as if the reader was actually a part of the town of Stellar Plains, watching this spell strike all of his or her neighbors.

I absolutely adored The Uncoupling, it offered me the full package of what I believe makes a book worth reading: prose, characters, plot, and something to connect with on a deeper level. This is a book I can very highly recommend, and one that is likely to make an appearance on my ‘best of’ list at the end of the year (and likely that of many other people as well).

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde – Book Review

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Published by Penguin
First book in the
Thursday Next series

It is 1985 and in this alternate Britain, literature is king. People go door to door to proselytize about the writer they thing truly wrote Shakespeare’s plays, for example. Other things are different too, the Crimean War has been on for over 100 years, and the Special Operations Network investigates everything from literary crime to temporal mishaps. Thursday Next is a highly regarded LitraTec agent, but even her expertise is challenged when evil genius mastermind Hades gains the ability to go into famous works of literature and change them, going so far as to kidnap Jane Eyre out of her eponymous book.

Imagine, if you will, that 1984 and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy got married and had a lit nerd baby. That baby would be The Eyre Affair. Honestly, I’m not really sure what you need to know more than that. Although Fforde’s Britain isn’t quite so dystopian as 1984, it definitely appears to owe elements to Orwell’s masterpiece. The The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy comparisons come in to with the strands of whimsy and, well, oddness, running through Thursday’s world. Fforde takes particular joy in naming places and characters, using both literary in-jokes and pretty much anything that he finds funny. I was less than enthused about some of the non-literary joke-names, but overall it is very clever and fun.

Jasper Fforde sold me almost immediately on his alternate, literature-loving, slightly dytopian Britain. This was a very fun, smart book, and I can’t wait to continue the series.

I read “The Eyre Affair” in preparation for the most recent episode of our podcast, What’s Old is New, this one on “Jane Eyre.”

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound | Amazon*

Source: Personal copy.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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