After months of dithering, I recently joined Goodreads. The reason behind my initial reluctance was the fact that I didn’t do so great in my college English classes. I still distinctly remember turning in paper after paper, confidently thinking, “man, I just killed that!” only to be handed back a page of scrawled, terse commentary explaining how scholarly collegiate-level essays are expected to discuss things like Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author [snooze] or Deleuzean post-structuralism [snoooooooze], and NOT the music of Counting Crows or the advice of Ralph Nader’s mother.
Here’s my review:
Whenever I finish a novel that I don’t wholeheartedly connect with, I’m always reminded of Ralph Nader’s mother. One afternoon, young Ralph returned home from school annoyed with his teacher. She favored other students over him. She spoke harshly to him. Her grading of his assignments was overly critical. She drove a Corvair. (Okay, I made that last one up!) But you get the idea: the usual schoolboy stuff. After listening to her son’s grievances, Momma Nader paused a moment before issuing her opinion: “I think the problem is you.”
Initially, I wasn’t planning to read The Marriage Plot; I was going to read Middlesex. After all, I had a trip to Detroit in my near future and I wanted to read the book that had been described in the Detroit Free Press as doing for Detroit what Ulysses did for Dublin. (I love that comparison! If I were Jeffrey Eugenides, I would totally get that tattooed someplace visible.)
And now that I’ve finished The Marriage Plot, I’m haunted by the thought that I should’ve stuck with my original plan.
But maybe the problem’s me.
After all, I won’t deny this: like most Midwesterners, I have trouble believing that people who attend Ivy League colleges have real problems. (C’mon, you go to Brown! What could possibly be wrong with YOUR life that can’t be fixed with a new cardigan and/or blazer?)
But again, maybe the problem’s me.
What impressed me the most about The Marriage Plot was Eugenides’ confidence as a writer. Here’s my theory: knowing that you’re destined to have “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” emblazoned on the cover of every book you’ll ever write for the rest of your life is akin to being born with Lebron James’ physique, Gore Vidal’s ancestry, and George Clooney’s looks. You can get away with anything; for example, writing a book that revolves around the lives of three young, self-obsessed Ivy Leaguers who are all painfully flawed characters (and I’m not simply talking about one character’s decision to refer to her mother as “Mummy,” or another’s decision to stop wearing deodorant.)
Throughout the narrative, I repeatedly felt my attention being stretched almost to its breaking point, as languid section after languid section left me contemplating severing the embrace. And as soon as this thought entered my consciousness, Eugenides pulverized me with a passage of pure beauty (Mitchell in the rickshaw, Bankhead on the subway platform). The swiftness of the assault was shattering and I would immediately re-read the passage just to soak up the beauty. And then the streeeetching would resume…
Eugenides also exhibits enviable confidence in the creation of Madeleine Hanna, who is the novel’s main character. There are two possible perspectives on “Maddy:” either she’s a brilliant literary scholar, who is worthy of grad school acceptance into BOTH Columbia and Yale (that’s Harold Bloom territory, baby!), or she’s a pathetic ditz who falls in love with (and marries!) a character with such obvious mental instability and general douchebaggery that he was constantly reminding me of Adam Duritz, lead singer of the Counting Crows. (C’mon just humor me for a minute: picture Adam Duritz and Helen Vendler dating. Awkward, ain’t it?)
And then there’s the ending, which revolves around a conversation at a party between Maddy’s two paramours. Eugenides draws out telling the reader what this conversation specifically entails, and when he does… well, let me just say that it does little to refute my Adam Duritz comparison. (Recovering the Satellites, anyone?)
But maybe the problem’s me.
Within the narrative, there are descriptions that are so perfect that they not only touch me, but touch me specifically. For example, one character is described as resembling “a young Tom Waits” (I love that early Tom Waits look!); and later, the same character attends a Quaker Meeting and sits there quietly not knowing what to do or say (I did the same thing once in Philadelphia); there’s also a quip about Maddy making a mental note regarding the proper pronunciation of Roland Barthes’ last name, so as to avoid future in-class humiliation (guess who mispronounced “Roland Barthesss” during his entire Master’s Thesis presentation? Ouch. Let’s move on…)
And then there’s the humor. (Alwyn and her breast milk, the Hanna family watching the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, Larry’s gay sexual adventures in Europe.) At times, The Marriage Plot is a very funny book. But then the humor moves on and things get stretchy again. And then things get mopey. And then, in my mind, I start hearing Adam Duritz’s stretchy, mopey voice singing: “It’s been a looooong December and there’s reason to belieeeeve that maybe this year will be better than the last…”
But here’s the thing: I’ve always kinda liked Counting Crows.