406 pages, 4th Estate
Review by Marc Nash
Jeffrey Eugenides isn't exactly prolific. His books come by about once every ten years. Once can only glean that this is due to the absolute attention to craft he invests in his craft; even though they read so effortlessly, you can just feel the intelligence suffusing every page.
Eugenides has written an updating of the Marriage Plot Victorian novels that were the province of Austen, Eliot, the Brontes et al. A girl and two suitors, one of them not being visible to her as husband material etc., etc. Tired old romantic storyline and three self-involved middle class American university students, does not seemingly offer much of a prospect to my jaded old eyes. But Eugenides is that master craftsman who weaves these elements together into a fabulous read.
Firstly the device is that the girl, Madeline, is studying the Victorian Marriage Plot for her degree and aims to continue to develop her ideas through further study. But fear not, as hoary as it sounds for her to be studying the theory of something she is actually enacting unwittingly in her own life, this is only a light-touch background framing device. It isn't really referred to in the meat of the book, which follows the interactions and occasional lone sojourns of the love triangular three main characters. Secondly, when Austen wrote her plots, the characters were geographically restricted and desperate to break out of their domestic cages through love. Where a trip to Box Hill was a logistical undertaking equivalent to the D-Day landings in Austen, here the characters think nothing of jetting off to India, or buying an apartment in New York. And all three are desperate to get away from their parents. These are modern lives, only ironically hauled back and snagged on the horns of the same dilemmas of the heart of their Victorian predecessors.
About to graduate, Madeline blows off the ceremony to go visit her boyfriend Leonard who has just been admitted to hospital at the zenith of a manic phase in his bipolarity. She sticks by him throughout the bulk of the novel, because she wants to save him. Eugenides is unflinching in his portrayal of the two poles of the condition, but his representation of mania is I think utterly stunning and authentic.
The third prong is intense Mitchell who studies religion in an attempt to answer age old questions for himself: why are we here and what constitutes living a good life? At the same time, Mitchell is all too ready to acknowledge that he is only flesh and therefore capable of poor behaviour. He is the one who has unrequited love for Madeline. He is the one she has as a friend, but overlooks his deeper feelings for. He is an annoyingly self-involved character, borne out by his trip to India where he volunteers for Mother Theresa's hospice, but can't bring himself to wash any of the forlorn near death's door.
I realise that to date I'm probably not selling this novel to you. Self-indulgent youth contemplating the great concepts of love before they have even landed their first jobs, people trying half-heartedly to be 'good', excusing their falling short. But it is testament to Eugenides' skill that he makes us care for these people. For his alchemical weaving of their compulsive humanity that makes me want to read on about characters I would cross the floor of a bar to avoid in real life.
A good story, utterly involving characters, beautiful, effortless prose and yes, Eugenides delivers a new resolution of the Marriage Plot, befitting our more complicated times and tangled relationships. Arch literary master that he is, he even slips in the word "Governess" right towards the final pages. It isn't just his three main protagonists he plays like marionettes; it's the heartstrings of the reader as well. Bravo!