Sunday, 30 October 2011

Plotting Marriage With Eugenides

Weeks ago, I jumped the gun at a quasi-review of this book. I wasn't impressed with it the first time around. A colleague's e-mail prompted another go at it. Though my overall verdict on the book hasn't changed, the book wasn't as bad as I first thought.

I'd only punched this out and submitted it several days ago. Didn't expect it to be out so quickly.

Love and marriage
Do they go together like a horse and carriage, as the old song would have it? Persevere through the many details in this exploration of the theme and you will find a good love story.

first published in The Star, 30 October 2011

The "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. You'll find it in the works of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, in most rom-coms and Bollywood productions.

But with the hallowed halls of the institution of marriage sullied by gender equality, rising divorce rates and the like, whither the marriage plot in modern times?

That's the question explored in a thesis by bookworm and Brown University English student Madeleine Hanna, the heroine of Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot.

Though it's the 1980s, one of her lecturers has already, apparently, pronounced the marriage plot in literature more or less dead, except in places where traditional cultures are still strong. (A Malaysian might start thinking about rice mothers, mango trees and silk factories....)

Thing is, Maddy soon finds herself navigating a love triangle with two fellow students in a version of the trope she's studying.

Though he's the one who gets to hook up with Maddy, manic-depressive Leonard Bankhead's status as a fluffy grey ball of gloom threatens the relationship – again and again.

Her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus is a spiritual hippie-type who's immersed in Christian mysticism – and the idea that Maddy's destined to be his wife.

The Marriage Plot offers wit, humour and fine storytelling.

The author displays a certain degree of sensitivity for his subjects, who go through the usual painful motions of the young in love: sometimes happy, often funny, and at times heartbreaking.

But we get too much background on characters we don't care about.

For instance, do we need to know that Maddy's semiotics lecturer is a former English department renegade who's hygienically bald, has a seaman's moustache, wears wide-vale corduroys and has a reading list comprising Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes?

By page 28, I was desperate for a drink of water and an open window.

But had I put down the book and never picked up again, I'd have missed out on some pretty good stuff.

Like the story of the mystery stain on Maddy's borrowed dress.

Why Maddy hooked up with Leo, the walking stormcloud. And how crazy Leo can get.

The drama that set Mitch and his friend Larry on their Big Fat Greek Adventure and Then Some.

The drama that is Mitch and Larry's Big Fat Greek Adventure and Then Some.

The realisation that hits you when Mitch asks Maddy if there's an Austen-esque book that ends happily, even if the girl doesn't end up with the right guy.

Mitch's time in Mother Teresa's Kalighat, the Home of the Pure Heart in India. And what sends him fleeing from there in a rickshaw, repeating the "Jesus Prayer" over and over again in his head. Oh, that bit was hilarious.

The author of Middlesex, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 , seems to be having fun in attempting a smart and entertaining rewrite of the marriage plot for an era where the very definition and idea of marriage itself is being rewritten. A little too much fun, perhaps, as I feel the book is about 100 pages too long.

Throughout history, courtship and marriage are often tricky affairs. If anything, they should be simplified, rather than complicated. And, as Maddy would learn, no amount of reading can prepare anyone for the pitfalls.

Stripped of the reading lists and textbook extracts, The Marriage Plot is a good love story that would also translate well into a screenplay.

The Marriage Plot
Jeffrey Eugenides
Fourth Estate (2011)
360 pages
ISBN: 978-0-00-744128-0


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