Preamble first. This review is of a proof edition of The Marriage Plot (and many thanks to the kind colleague who managed to bag me a copy of it), and so anything I write about here may not resemble what makes it into the finished work, may be totally off base, etc, etc. Don't sue me.
With that said, on to the review.
What I am about to say makes me very sad. Believe me, no one wanted Jeffrey Eugenides' new book to succeed more than I did. Middlesex was a big delicious chocolate cake of a novel and The Virgin Suicides was a perfectly creepy little masterclass in how to create an atmosphere. My assumption was, therefore, that his third book would be as awesome as the first two. I certainly thought so. Man was I excited about reading this book. But - oh readers, I am filled with sorrow - this book was not very good.
Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides both had such clear, clever ideas behind them, but it's a bit difficult to understand why Jeffrey Eugenides thought he needed to write The Marriage Plot. The story of three college graduates, who consider critical opinions about love while falling unsuitably in love with each other, it is very much lacking in a central point.
Jeffrey Eugenides seems to have based the entire book in reaction to a school of thought (mentioned early on in the text) that says that the marriage plot as a novel genre (think Jane Austen and Mr Darcy's acres) died with the introduction of divorce and women's rights - marriage stopped mattering in the way it used to, That's all very well, except it's also completely and utterly not true. Recent lyrical masterpiece Single Ladies is essentially a paean to great big white dresses; the entire world went absolutely potty when Prince William decided to get hitched; and I don't know what Twilight is if it isn't a marriage plot. You could argue that Twilight isn't high literature, and of course it isn't, but I don't think when visitors came to Jane Austen's door she ever responded with "I'LL BE OUT IN A MINUTE, I'M JUST WRITING SOME HIGH LITERATURE!" What I'm trying to say is, there's no point being arrogant and thinking that just because no really good people are doing something, it isn't being done. Of course it bloody is. Three people, all in love, wanting to get married to each other? You might as well write a book where the Pope is Catholic and bears shit in the woods.
Jeffrey Eugenides is also reacting to novels where there are no solid, real-world characters, only people drifting in and out of a room mournfully talking about Sartre. Fair enough. Except the problem with this is that his solid characters aren't people that I'd willingly spend any time with at all. Madeleine, the heroine, is a attractive young WASP with a debilitating personality disorder: half the time she is a vapid sexpot, and the other half she is a serious-minded English student specialising in Victorian literature. To let us know when she is about to do something serious-minded, Jeffrey Eugenides has her put on a pair of nonsensically beat-up nerd glasses (we are told about a thousand times that her family is obnoxiously rich, so why can she not afford new ones? I suspect it is meant to be endearing. It is not endearing). Madeleine's 'unsuitable' love interest, Leonard, actually does have a debilitating personality disorder, depression, and I find it more than mildly disturbing that this is put forward as pretty much the only reason why he is so unsuitable. He's an asshole, sure, but that seems to be presented as just another of his symptoms (I think the people I know with depression would be rather offended at this). The other suitor, Mitchell, is unoffensive but also not particularly interesting or much involved in the plot. He spends most of the novel in India, reading scholarly works about religion. These are quoted in large, painful chunks throughout the novel. Because in case you hadn't noticed, this is HIGH LITERATURE.
That's another of The Marriage Plot's major flaws. Whereas most novels with pretensions to Great Thoughts are happy enough to namecheck a critic or thinker, and then get on with it, The Marriage Plot rams each mentioned critic down your throat. READ THIS! CONNECT WITH IT! HAVE YOU CONNECTED WITH IT YET? IF NOT, YOU ARE PROBABLY STUPID. I began to feel frightened and confused, as though in not recognising and comprehending Derrida's theory of love I had failed as an English student and also as a person. What if (I thought) I go into my first MA seminar next month and I don't understand any of that either? What if I am stupid? What if everyone else realises that I am only pretending to be an English scholar? WHAT THEN?
And if that's the way I felt, as a person who has quite recently completed an English BA and thus exactly the target audience of most of The Marriage Plot's frame of reference, then I can't imagine who else might be able to truly get this book in the way it wants to be understood. Who is it for? Who does Jeffrey Eugenides imagine will read it? This is one of the most unashamedly elitist novels I've come across in quite a while, and there's not even a reason for it. It's about getting married, for heavens' sake. It ought to at least be engaging.
The front cover of my proof copy tells me sternly that it is NOT FOR RESALE OR QUOTATION, and since I am bad at arguing, and especially bad at arguing with lawyers, I am going to obey the big black text. This is a pity, though, because I would very much like to share some of The Marriage Plot's choicer quotes with you all. At one bewildering point, around page 350, it takes a sharp right turn, abandons narrative completely and goes barrelling down Bad Porn Lane (this is adjascent to Awful Literary Sex Avenue, which is where most of The Blue Book takes place). It is all very horrible and intricately described.
This was the moment that I finally gave up trying to love The Marriage Plot. I had been trying so much, really giving it the benefit of the doubt, following it faithfully as it wallowed along like our oversize American rental car trying to turn a corner, but then page 350 happened and I hit the wall. Things did not get any better after that. The ending was not only randomly and stupidly postmodern but completely inefficient: it left about thirty loose ends waving in the breeze, entirely ignored. Poor things. They had to be in this silly novel and then they didn't even get to be resolved.
And poor Jeffrey Eugenides, too. I feel so bad for hating this. I love his books! I'm sure he is a very nice person! And yet. This book is a failure. With all the will in the world, I can only give it