The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides

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The Marriage Plot

Five words from the blurb: American, college, love, novel, relationships

Jeffrey Eugenides has a special power with words, managing to reduce me to tears just 34 pages into Middlesex. His latest novel, The Marriage Plot, shares this magical character building, but unfortunately it lacks a powerful plot.

The Marriage Plot is an unashamedly American novel. Focusing on college students in the 1980s we see their struggle to form relationships and the pressures placed on them to pair off. The characters come to life on the very first page. I quickly felt as though I knew them all; understanding their motivations and sharing their pain.

The central character is Madeleine, an English major writing a thesis on “the marriage plot” which investigates the way changes in courtship have altered the structure of novels throughout history.

Sexual equality, good for women. had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for a separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much any more, and neither did the novel.

This was a clever device and I loved the way this theme was reflected in Eugenides’ novel – especially in the final few paragraphs.

I loved the character building of the first 100 pages, but after that I slowly began to lose interest. Very little happened and I became increasingly frustrated. The book had some good themes, but they were too spread out and I think it would have benefited from being at least 150 pages shorter. I suspect that the reminiscing aspects of this book will mean it has a greater appeal to Americans (especially those who went to college in the 1980s), but as someone from outside the country I felt that a lot of the cultural references went over my head.

I’m probably being a bit harsh by awarding this 3.5 stars as it clearly has a lot to recommend it. I think my expectations were a bit too high going into it and so I was disappointed by the simplicity of the plot and the mundane actions of the characters.

If you enjoy getting inside the head of ordinary people then I’m sure you’ll enjoy this book, but I wish something more exciting had happened.

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Everyone else thinks this book is amazing:

The Marriage Plot is humane, subtly humorous, sometimes touching, and always extremely engaging. Things Mean A Lot

….taking things that are MAD TEDIOUS, like people’s scholarly inclinations and the way they intersect with and inform said people’s life-paths and making it FASCINATING! books i done read

Eugenides prose is just as beautiful and detailed as it was in Middlesex, and his characters just as memorable. Literary Musings

 


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36 Comments

  1. I started reading Middlesex last year but gave up…

    when you say “The Marriage Plot is an unashamedly American novel.” it makes me think that the novel is trying to be The Great American Novel (TM).

    1. Jackie says:

      Damned Conjuror, Yes! This book is definitely trying to be THE Great American Novel. I think it does a good job of doing that and I’m sure it will be thought of as The Great American novel of 2011 (if not of the decade)

  2. Stephanie says:

    I am sorry this one was a little disappointing. Have you read Eugenides’ other books? If so, how did this one compare to your thoughts on the other two?

    1. Jackie says:

      Stephanie, I’ve only read Middlesex, which I loved. The Marriage Plot has a similar writing style and the same amazing character development, but The Marriage Plot was a much slower book. I loved the originality of Middlesex, but The Marriage Plot contained a very ordinary subject matter. The characters were so normal they were boring (at least to me). I didn’t feel I came away from The Marriage Plot having learnt anything new and although a few sections were entertaining I had to read a lot of pages to find them. It depends on the type of books you like – if you like plot then stay away. If you enjoy character studies then dive in :-) Hope that helps.

  3. Alyce says:

    I’ve heard great things about this author’s writing, but I haven’t read any of his books yet. I’ve wondered if they are going to be too literary for me (which shouldn’t be code for “too boring” but sometimes that ends up being the fact).

    1. Jackie says:

      Alyce, He is a literary writer and it sounds as though you’d struggle with The Marriage Plot. I think it might be worth you trying Middlesex – it has some very interesting sections and the plot is gripping enough to pull you through. (Fingers crossed) I hope you like it if you decide to give it a try.

      1. Alyce says:

        I have this checked out from the library and it’s due tomorrow. I decided to read the first twenty pages just to see what it’s like and I was pleasantly surprised to be sucked into the book. His writing is literary, but not boring. I love that it’s intelligent writing that makes me think and reflect. I’m only about halfway through so I don’t think I’ll finish it in time, but I thought I’d stop by and tell you that I really liked his writing style. I’ll have to put the book on hold again soon so that I can finish it and find out what happens. :)

        1. Jackie says:

          Alyce, I’m really pleased that you are enjoying it. Sorry you have to return it to the library before you’ve finished, but I hope you manage to borrow it again soon. I look forward to your thoughts on the book as a whole. :-)

    2. Louise says:

      I’m in exactly the same position as Alyce. I keep thinking I should pick up something by this author but never seem to get round to it. I’m not a big fan of books where nothing much happens so I’m not sure if this is the one to start with.

      I tend to find that “literary” sometimes ends up being code for boring. Maybe I’m just too lazy to read grown-up books.

      1. Jackie says:

        Louise, It is not lazy – it is just differing tastes, but if you enjoy plot driven books then I don’t suggest you start with this one – I could write the plot on the back of a postage stamp :-(

  4. I have this one on my tbr list, and i’m hoping to get to it soon. Great honest review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Mrs Q, I hope that you enjoy it and I look forward to seeing your thoughts.

  5. Sandy says:

    Well, I think the reading world has unanimously determined that this book is NOT Middlesex. What is, really? A book like that comes along once in a lifetime for an author I think. I can handle something less. And I was one of those people who did go to college in the ’80’s so we will see. I’m thinking this one will be an audio for me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, It is a long book and I know you enjoy those on audio so I think that is probably a good way for you to go. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one more than I did.

  6. I’m sorry this one wound up being disappointing. I’m about one hundred pages in and still enjoying it. I do agree it’s quite American, but I’m fascinated by academia too. It’s been quite illuminating to see how different it was in the 1980’s, to the late 1990’s when I was in college, to now, when I work at a university. I’m curious to see how I end up feeling about it, but for now, I simply cannot put it down and am bemoaning all of my commitments this week that keep me from it!

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, I’m sure you’ll end up enjoying it more than I did. The academic system seems very different to the one I went to and so perhaps that is why it didn’t connect with me as much. (I also studied chemistry, which is taught in a very different way to English) I look forward to seeing your final (no doubt gushing!) thoughts.

  7. Brenna says:

    Jackie, I didn’t even think about the cultural references going over the heads of non-Americans. That is too bad. Also, you mentioned the final few paragraphs and how the post-modern take on the marriage plot was reflected. I simply adored the last few pages, I thought everything was wrapped up so well, but without a pretty bow on it.

    Thanks for the link-up!

    1. Jackie says:

      Brenna, Yes, those last few pages were very clever – if only he could have made the middle section as good as that I’d have been a happy girl. :-)

  8. Steph says:

    I have read quite a few reviews of this book and yours is the first that pointed out that it is very “American” in its scope and tone. That intrigues me, because in some ways I don’t know what that means, but then again, the majority of the fiction I read tends to be by American and British authors so I’m sure I’ll like it (for other reasons beyond that as well, of course!). It’s interesting because through blogging I’ve found that certain books that are well-received by American readers don’t find the same purchase overseas, and vice versa as well… It makes me wonder whether the two groups have different reading agendas, preferences, or expectations, and what it is about the books that wind up having rather geographically insular appeal. I suppose it’s naive of me, but I never would have thought that the books written by American versus English writers would be all that different!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I think the magic of books like this is that they are able to remind you of your past. Those who studied at US universities will get a lovely warm feeling as they are reminded about all those little things that happened and the way it was back then. The problem is that in the UK we have a different education system and so the minute detail bored me. Books like Black Swan Green by David Mitchell or Starter for Ten by David Nicholls will probably have the reverse effect on US readers – I loved reading the details of UK life back in the 1980s, but anyone who didn’t live through it will probably not see the magic. There are a lot of UK/US authors who will be loved on both sides of the pond, but those that have too many cultural references won’t be appreciated as much by the other. Does that make sense? I’m sure you’re going to prove me wrong by saying how much you love Black Swan Green!

  9. Jenners says:

    I did go to college in the U.S. in the 1980s … so maybe this book would be a perfect for me. I loved Middlesex but hated The Virgin Suicides … so I was hoping this book was more Middlesexian!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, I’m afraid I haven’t read The Virgin Suicides so can’t tell you how it compares to that, but if you went to college in the 80s I think there is a good chance you’ll enjoy this one. I look forward to your thoughts.

  10. Mystica says:

    I like the ordinary stories of ordinary people. Somehow in a novel you look at it in a fresh way! this one is for me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Mystica, If you like stories about ordinary people then you’ll love this book :-)

  11. Amused says:

    I’ve seen this book everywhere this past couple of weeks so I’m glad to see your thoughts on it!

    1. Jackie says:

      Amused, Yes. I think it is one of the books most people will want to read at some point. I’m glad you appreciate my thoughts, despite the massive coverage it has had already.

  12. Oh no, not a Middlesex as I was hoping :) I downloaded the Kindle so hope to experience it soon for myself. (I just skimmed your review Jackie)

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, I hope that you enjoy it! I look forward to seeing your thoughts.

  13. Biblibio says:

    I know of so many people who love Eugenides writing that I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’ve never actually experienced it for myself. Your description of The Marriage Plot as focusing on the lives of utterly ordinary people actually has me intrigued – while I do like a good plot, I think there isn’t much well-written documentation of the standard, normal life. I suppose an appreciation for The Marriage Plot can be partly chalked up to personal taste…

    1. Jackie says:

      Bibliobio, “partly chalked up to personal taste…”

      I think it is entirely personal taste. The characters in this book were so ordinary that they will reflect parts of most of us, but I’m afraid most of us lead very boring lives and I prefer a bit more action. If the premise intrigues you then I’m sure you’ll love it. Enjoy!

  14. Care says:

    This is another author I really should read more. You have only confirmed my motivation.

    1. Jackie says:

      Care, I hope you enjoy your first Eugenides :-)

  15. Kailana says:

    I have had this book for a while, but I am a bit scared of it. I simply adored his other two books and I am worried this one won’t be as good… I hate doing that, though, because this could sit on my TBR pile for years!

    1. Jackie says:

      Kailana, I have that problem sometimes too. I hate it when you love an author so much that your expectations are so high – you never know whether you’ll fall in love with their next book or be bitterly disappointed. I hope you build up the courage to read this book and it lives up to expectations.

  16. Oh, I want to read this! I loved Middlesex, and I have high expectations from this one. (The Virgin Suicides didn’t really do it for me).

    A tad disappointed that you awarded it 3.5 stars, but it does sound promising and well worth a read. Yay!

    1. Jackie says:

      anothercookiecrumbles, It is probably worth a lot more than 3.5 stars – I can see how cleverly it is written. I think it is just a case of it being the wrong subject matter for me. I hope you have better luck with it.

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