What I’m Reading Wednesday: 1/25/2012

Today’s book: “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides

I really didn’t know what to say about this one. It’s heralded as one of the top books in 2011 by the New York Times and plenty of other institutions – for whatever that’s worth. And the plot description on Amazon sounded intriguing. Unfortunately, the book wasn’t as great as I’d hoped it would be. It was a fine read, to be sure, but I can’t quite call it a great story.

The storyline opens on graduation day at Brown University in the early 1980’s. I liked the time setting; characters in “The Marriage Plot” weren’t plagued by ringing cell phones throughout the story. Unencumbered by technology, their interactions felt pure and honest. As one of the characters traveled the world, his lack of Facebook, Skype, and text messaging allowed him to truly come to terms with his feelings for another character. In 2012, can you imagine not talking to one of your loved ones for months and months? Relying only upon long-traveled letters that arrive weeks after they’re written? It’s a disconcerting thought.

So this book is basically about a love triangle. In the middle is the Madeleine, the girl you’d love to hate in real life. She’s self-absorbed, overly intellectual, and beautiful. On one side is Mitchell, the guy she’s been stringing along for four years of college. And on the other side is Leonard, the living definition of ‘tortured genius.’ Through a series of flashbacks and present narration following each character, we learn what happens to the three of them in the year after graduation. Now, all of their adventures hinge upon Madeleine’s senior thesis. The girl is completely obsessed with old novels, and she formulates this whole idea about – you guessed it – the marriage plot, the omnipotence of marriage as an end-all, be-all to so many of the stories that Madeleine read. As we read, we wonder: will these young people perpetuate the old stereotypes? Or will things be different for them?

It’s a fun read. Eugenides knows how to create suspense by switching the vantage point among characters at critical plot junctures. At one point, I was so eager to learn what would happen with a character that I wanted to skip the next chunk of narrative about a different one. For that kind of interest alone, I must give this book its dues; it was absorbing.

But a large flaw with the book was that Madeleine wasn’t a believable character for me. It wasn’t that I couldn’t identify her motives or understand her decisions; she just didn’t seem like a real girl. We have to wonder if this was because the author, Eugenides, is male; writing the opposite gender is a risky proposition. The guy is critically acclaimed as a novelist for good reason. He tells a great, absorbing story. But that doesn’t mean he understands what it’s like to be a 22-year-old woman and can portray one convincingly.

That said, the storyline was interesting and I devoured it quickly. It was something that I could almost relate to immediately, having graduated college a few years ago myself, and having woken up on the morning of my graduation about as hung over as Madeleine was for hers. This is a good book for adults in their twenties or thirties who can relate to the characters directly, or for people in their fifties who have fond memories of being idealistic post-grads in the 80’s.

Bottom line: Give it a shot.
6/8 slices.

Looking for something to read? Get advice from other What I’m Reading Wednesdays:

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
Red Mist by Patricia Cornwell
11/22/63 by Stephen King

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