Losing the Plot

The plan was to write a review of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. But the reality is that I’m struggling to finish the work that I have here let alone set more work for myself in tackling a review. Why did I want to review it? The simple answer is that I found it one of the more interesting books I’ve read this year. I haven’t read many books this year but this one made me wish I was part of a bookclub again so we could discuss it at length.

I loved this book and it also frustrated me. And I’m also very interested in how books reflect their authors. So please excuse the ‘wild analysis’ type of discussion below.

The Marriage Plot concerns three university students at Brown University in the early 1980s. Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus. Madeleine’s the all-American literary one, Leonard’s the brilliant-but-damaged one and Mitchell’s the religious-and-slightly-odd one. What drives the plot for much of the novel is the question of who Madeleine will choose. Will it be the brilliant-but-damaged Leonard or the more-stable-but-also-weird-in-his-own-way Mitchell? And behind that question seems to be a broader feminist awareness that women should not be defined by their choice of partner. There’s an interesting diversion into the ‘marriage plot’ of Victorian-era literature and also a reflection that however much we might try to be aware of the socially constructed nature of love and romance, people are very much still preoccupied with their most intimate relationships.

I’m not sure that this is the best way of putting it, but one question that I had was “Why is Madeleine such a sap?” Why does she allow herself to be so consumed by the relationship with Leonard? There were other questions that I had and one was around the extent to which Eugenides was influenced by David Foster Wallace (DFW) in his depiction of Leonard Bankhead. Readers who are convinced that Leonard is really DFW point to the brilliance, the bandana, the chewing tobacco and the Bipolar Mood Disorder. Eugenides does say that Leonard is not DFW and there is the glaring difference that Leonard is a Biology major and not a literary major. But some readers are not convinced. DFW was a major contemporary of Eugenides. DFW taught creative writing at Pomona College in California while Eugenides teaches creative writing at Princeton. Both of them are leading US writers of their generation.

There’s also the question of how closely Eugenides resembles his other leading man, Mitchell Grammaticus. Both of them are half-Greek, both are very interested in religion, and both (apparently) had awkward times as university students. Eugenides also says that Mitchell’s Indian trip was based very closely on Eugenides’ own trip to India around the same time. The danger here is that as readers we can assume that Mitchell = Eugenides. And what Eugenides is at pains to point out is that he resembles all three of his characters. He is able to draw on different aspects of himself to flesh out Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard.

But just staying with the Mitchell = Eugenides and Leonard = DFW ideas for the moment, what does this say about the relationship between the two writers? Mitchell feels intense jealousy towards Leonard while Leonard is barely aware of Mitchell’s existence. As for Eugenides and DFW, both are very successful but I gather that DFW is considered the more brilliant of the two. Brilliant but damaged obviously since he ended up taking his life. If Madeleine represents the all-American reader then she is far more enamored with DFW than with Eugenides, at least for a while. I know that this is a very ‘wild analysis’ type of literary interpretation. But then we always bring our own ideas to the text anyway so maybe this says more about my own rivalry issues than it does about Jeff Eugenides!


At this stage in my life perhaps I should be more concerned with the “Married with Child” plot. Certainly there are times when all three of us seem to lose the plot. Baby F (or Toddler F as she now is) lost the sleeping plot last night and we had a taste of what it is like for many other parents whose children won’t go to sleep at the regular time. She was up early this morning (4.30am apparently) and I was pretty oblivious, sleeping through. She’s crawling and walking now (walking with support that is) so it’s a very busy time. And she also seems to want to stand up a lot of the time (for baths, meals etc.) She babbles away, commenting on the light (wight) and the flowers (wowers) and her toys. Dis! Dat! Not dat! Mudda. Nana. Buddha.

I get to escape to a boys school conference this weekend so L will be coping on her own once again. I hope the plot stays calm and uneventful while I’m away.


4 Responses to Losing the Plot

  1. litlove says:

    Spare a thought for my friend who has two young daughters, neither of whom slept for more than half an hour at a time for the first 8 months – 1 year of their lives. I don’t know how that woman is still standing.

    Very intriguing thoughts about Jeffrey Eugenides and David Foster Wallace and how their real life situation may or may not leak into the fictional representation. I think it’s fun to play with this sort of thing, even if we also take it with a small pinch of salt. Why not, after all? I thought your rivalry theory was extremely interesting. I think that Madeleine’s sapiness is the product of Leonard’s capricious affections. We know that babies bond tighter to mothers who are intermittent in their affections because the psychodrama of love and abandonment is so terrible as to be transfixing. I felt that the same structure was at play with Madeleine, which is why her relationship to Leonard is so bad for her, essentially.

    It’s nice to hear your voice! If this is a ‘wild review’ I’m all for them. 🙂

    • Pete says:

      Hi Litlove. Great to hear from you too. I hadn’t thought of Madeleine’s relationship in terms of attachment theory before but it makes so much sense. I wonder if Eugenides was aware of this? I listened to one of the readings he gave on his US tour and readers were impressed by the way he managed to ‘get inside’ Madeleine’s thoughts. I wanted more of this, and felt that Madeleine was under-developed (even in a 400-page novel).

      As for your friend, I can only imagine on the basis of our energetic but usually easy baby. Last night I did the feed / bath / bed routine alone since L was giving a talk and it wiped me out. Childcare is a seriously scary business.

      Glad you liked the wild review. I’ll try and do more of them when Baby F allows.

  2. Grad says:

    Pete, I had to laugh at the part of the post when you couldn’t resist trying to psycho-analyze Madeleine! I think that’s so…YOU! But I trust your opinion. I haven’t seen this one on the shelves at the bookstore over here. Hope I can find it. Toddler F sounds like a delight…at any hour of the day.

  3. doctordi says:

    The competition and attachment elements really ARE fascinating, Pete… everyone seems intrigued by this novel – I’ll have to add it to the very, very long wish list.

    Wow, walking and talking! That seems to have happened all at once – how exciting! I love the improved communication of this stage, it’s so much fun, but yes, it will knock you flat too. Toddlers are a whole other ballgame.

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