Cannonball Read IV: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Ah, yes, the book that inspired the Book Binge of 2012.
I graduated two years ago as an English major from Barnard College. So relating to Madeleine Hanna was an easy task. Each literary reference and nerd’s inside joke warmed my little liberal arts degree heart.
The contemporary fiction I’ve read in the past year, however, not as easy. I keep mentally resisting the ever present “urgency of unhappiness” theme that has pervaded nearly every book I’ve read in the past six months. Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Franzen’s skillful prose provided no comfort to me as I watched their sad men and women with few redeeming qualities drift unmotivated through their lives, tethered to futility by narcissism, addiction, lust, and so on.
This is not to say that Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell are really any different from Bennie Salazar or Patti Berglund. They’re just as lost and angry. But Eugenides’s examination of their triangle, informed by the narrative structure familiar to those of us who have read 19th century romance, shifts the focus from their individual, tormented psyches. Rather than a story focused on inescapable unhappiness, a deeper investigation of the nature of relationships is revealed. The pain of never really knowing someone is palpable in these characters. The reason for their unhappiness is revealed not through their own selfishness, but through their willingness to love someone else. Sacrifice, fear, and vulnerability define these three. As a reader, as a human, as someone willing to give up part of myself to love someone, I was able to empathize with these characters in different way. It allowed me to revisit the idea of the “urgency of unhappiness,” why we allow ourselves to fail so miserably, to be so hurt, to end up alone. Though I can’t say I can even begin to answer these questions, I admire Eugenides’s effort to really humanize a subject that has felt so alienating to me in the past.
This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Learn more and sign up at the group blog (yes you can still sign up!)
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