Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Review: "The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides

It's been nearly 10 years since Jeffrey Eugenides published a novel—his last book, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, so one could imagine that was a pretty hard act to follow. His new book, The Marriage Plot, has been hailed by critics as one of the year's best, although reaction from readers has been somewhat mixed. In my opinion, this is a terrific story led by three complex characters, but from time to time, it gets mired in its own intellectualism.

It's the early 1980s at Brown University. English major Madeleine Hanna, who grew up privileged in the New Jersey suburbs, is in love with romantic novels by Jane Austen and George Eliot, and is truly in love with love. Widening her horizons in her senior year, she takes a semiotics class, which causes her to challenge her beliefs and think more philosophically, but she also meets Leonard Bankhead, one of her classmates, a highly intelligent—and troubled—biology major. Meanwhile, Madeleine's friend, Mitchell Grammaticus, is obsessed with her and believes that she is his true soulmate. Even traveling around the world after college, exploring the history and philosophy of different religions, can't seem to shake her from his mind. The Marriage Plot tells Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard's stories, views the world and their interconnectedness through each of their eyes, and gets fully immersed in their happinesses and challenges.

I really enjoyed the three main characters and really became invested in what happened to them. The problem I had with the book, however, is that I felt it tried to be an intellectual novel, and it didn't need to. It gets a little too in depth in its literary and philosophical references, and spends more time than necessary providing a religious framework for Mitchell's explorations. While I understand these characters were intelligent and thoughtful, the same story could have had even more impact if I didn't need to wonder what each literary reference meant. That being said, however, the story and Eugenides' writing is too good to pass up, so if you go into reading this knowing you may need to look things up in the dictionary (or maybe you're smarter than I am), you'll realize the novel's strengths faster than I did.

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