O.K., full disclosure: I'd read Eugenides before. Not The Virgin Suicides (though I loved the movie), but Middlesex, the 2002 Pulitzer-winner about a hermaphrodite coming of age in a Greek-American family. Having found it initially exhilarating but ultimately broad and moralizing, as though Eugenides were responding to a writing prompt that asked him to please demonstrate in your own words the ways in which America has a legacy of persecuting people who are different, I wasn't too eager to pick up his latest effort. He seemed to me a literary version of an immensely talented burlesque dancer: an exceptional sentence-maker, scene-setter, and character-builder who was finally most interested gimmicks. I was so not eager to read him again that it wasn't until I was trading recommendations at a holiday party that I even registered the new book's title, let alone learned what it was about.
A novel about a Brown student studying marriage plot novels in the 1980's that is a marriage plot novel itself. Hmm. It sounded interesting. You could say gimmicky. But given my long and intense interest in marriage and love stories of all kinds, and the bookish enthusiasm with which this new one was recommended, I was pretty sure it wouldn't be long before my resistance to Eugenides gave way.
Sure enough. I read the book in a passionate, almost manic bender -- on a bus to New York, in bed, on the couch while laid up with a head cold -- that lasted as long as I could make it, which was finally only a week. Middlesex aside, it seems clear to me from The Marriage Plot that Eugenides has a rare gift for narrative arc. Like the best of the Victorian novelists heroine Madeleine Hanna studies, his third person narration moves fluidly from character to character, as details introduced early on -- the wallpaper in Madeleine's childhood bedroom, a particular quote from Barthes about the meaning of the phrase "I love you" -- return with sharp, heartbreaking new meaning later on.
Speaking of love, here's a breath of fresh air: Eugenides really loves his characters. He admires and pities the rakish, brilliant, but disturbed scientist Leonard Bankhead:
Through the window he could see the night surf, the crests of waves
catching the moonlight. The black water was telling him things. It was
telling him that he had come from nothing and would return to nothing.
He wasn't as smart as he'd thought. He was going to fail at Pilgrim Lake.
He regards with tenderness Mitchell Grammaticus's unrequited love not to mention his quest for spiritual and social goodness:
Mitchell's concern that he wasn't coming up to the mark at Kalighat
coexisted, oddly enough, with a surge of real religious feeling on his
part. Much of the time in Calcutta, he was filled with an ecstatic
tranquility, like a low-grade fever. His meditation practice had deepened.
He experienced plunging sensations, as if moving at great speed. For
whole minutes he forgot who he was. Outside in the streets, he tried,
and often succeeded, in disappearing to himself in order to be,
paradoxically, more present.
And he's half in love with the half-assured, half-embarrassed, and entirely romantic Madeleine:
Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-
handed after jogging with hand weights. After getting out of Semiotics
211, Madeleine fled to the Rockefeller Library, down to B Level, where
the stacks exuded a vivifying smell of mold, and grabbed something --
anything, The House of Mirth, Daniel Deronda -- to restore herself to
sanity. How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from
the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying
narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There
were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen in it in a
place resembling the world.
Then, too, there were lots of weddings in Wharton and Austen. There
were all kinds of irresistible gloomy men.
Eugenides is so in love, in fact, that he manages -- with real, hard-won wisdom -- to forgive her her patrician upbringing, which makes both Leonard and Mitchell quiver in their boots. I can't deny it: I love her, too, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the first romantically-minded English major to see herself in this character. (That she's also the daughter of a former college president is almost too much.) But yes, she's a Victorian heroine for sure. Eugenides even gives her a name worthy of Hardy's most imperious, reckless best. Madeleine Hanna is right up there with Bathsheba Everdene and Eustacia Vye -- just slightly more plausible for a child born in Connecticut in 1960.
As for my torrid affair with these pages, there are many reasons a reader might be gripped by a novel, but the most common scenario, I think, occurs when the writer gives us the world the we crave -- the full back story of every relevant character, including all the places, people and events that made him who he is right now, sometimes in depth, sometimes with sublime concision -- while simultaneously churning his plot forward over a compressed and significant period of time. Eugenides does this maddeningly well.
In the history of literature, and in the contemporary mind (right or wrong), there is perhaps no more significant time of life than the early twenties. This, we tell ourselves, is when we emerge from childhood into adulthood, when kittenish fun wanes and the serious beasts we will grapple with for years to come first show their frightening claws. Eugenides looks steadily at this fast, spiraling time, acknowledging that the kittenish fun has claws of its own and the serious beasts their silliness -- because what is childish and what is adult, what is fun and what is serious, is never so easily delineated. He makes us wonder, breathlessly, "But what will become of these people in this place resembling the world? What will they grow up to be?"
It's a question you might ask of any confused twentysomething in love, however talented, however ambitious, however tormented (especially, I guess, if you're that twentysomething's parent). But it seems especially right to ask it of twentysomethings who want to be taken seriously, who see in themselves some capacity for greatness, and who feel the pressures of greatness constantly, having spent time at a venerable place like Brown.
What will become of these people? There's no more propulsive question for a novel. And I don't think it's giving too much away to say that it's the best novelists who leave the question intensely discussed but finally, somewhat unanswered.
author of The Violet Hour, reader, prodigious eater of ice cream