Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Lost In This Plot

The term "marriage plot" categorises a storyline that typically centres on the courtship between a man and a woman and the obstacles faced by the potential couple on their way to the altar.

The Wikipedia says it became a popular source of entertainment in the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of the bourgeois novel, with such foremost practitioners as Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, and the Brontë sisters. Today, it's a popular device in most rom-coms.

Marriage plot. Jane Austen. 18th and 19th centuries.

Is that why I couldn't seem to get Jeffrey Eugenides' latest novel?

Who wants to read about a love triangle among three university postgrads in the 1980s? I don't.

The title looked interesting though.

The storyline is also rather 1980s. Three youngsters are graduating from university, and of them all, Madeleine Hanna is perhaps the most normal one. She's a rather brainy student of semiotics who, despite looking somewhat like Katherine Hepburn, is not very confident in her looks or body shape.

I think there's something going on with her and two guys. Part-Greek Mitchell Grammaticus, said to be the author's sort-of avatar, is a spiritual hippy-type who did religious studies and went off to Europe and then India with his Francophile classmate Larry... something.

By the time I got to the bit about Leonard Bankhead, I couldn't care to find out what he'd studied. However, it seems that he's Madeleine's squeeze. Dude also came from a dysfunctional family, and suffers from depression. Madeleine's mom is uncomfortable with Leonard's condition, and it seems as though she's trying to keep the two apart towards the end of the novel.

I'll admit: I'm totally unfamiliar with Mr Eugenides's works. His list of literary influences make me look like a pre-Neanderthal. I gave up on Jane Austen after one paragraph (Pride and Prejudice, I think it was). I parsed, not read, it from cover to cover. Prior to the e-mail from a colleague who handed me the early reading copy (on which this review is based), I wasn't aware of Mr Eugenides's existence. Nor did I know that his 2002 novel, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Ambassador Book Award, or that said novel is said to be the precursor to the "long-awaited" release.

From what I could gather from The Marriage Plot, Eugenides can write. He has humour, storytelling and a certain degree of sensitivity to his subjects. The three go through the motions of the young in love: sometimes happy; at other times, heartbreaking. Mitchell's (mis)adventures in finding G*d and himself are fun, perhaps due to the injection of Eugenides's own experiences when he trod on a similar path.

But does all that exposition about semiotics, religion, etc necessary to advance the story? And all that backstory on the main characters and some supporting characters just adds to the ...chaos? Well, it's okay for the main characters, but... Too much going on in the background, I feel.

So, kudos to the reviewers who dug deeper and deconstructed Eugenides's marriage plot. But I can't concur with some of the more positive comments ("sedulously unplayful, with the exception of the odd Pynchonian near-aptonym ('Bankhead', 'Grammaticus', 'Thurston Meems') and a (rather perfunctory) metafictional gesture on the final page.") or observations ("The tight plotting and internalised psychology of this new novel, allied to the full sweep of ideas and social observation and quiet comedy that characterised Eugenides's earlier works, are signs of a new maturity.")

Because I can't. I couldn't go that deep.

I won't doubt that it's a good love story, with flashes of wit and humour, and that it'll translate well into a screenplay. And perhaps some, if not all of the niggling little details that made my experience with the book less than ideal would have been excised from the final edition.

The book is, I feel, a tad overwritten. The discussions and inquiries in the narrative don't do much for the enjoyment of the story, unless it's meant to be more than the usual marriage plot.

I'll wait for the movie. So...

Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.
Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.
Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.
Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.
Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.
Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.
Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.
Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.

05/10/2011  I put this up because I thought I was no longer required to do a review for this book, but turns out I still have to.

Anyway, I just received a "real" copy of The Marriage Plot, so there will be another version of this review somewhere down the line, which will probably re-use some passages from this version. Hence, this post is no longer a valid book review.

So, yes, I jumped the gun on this one. And I may have... really lost the plot. Apologies.

30/10/2011  Read the "official" review for The Marriage Plot here.


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