Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Marriage Plot Thickens

The Marriage PlotThe Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really would give this four and a half stars -- it's very close to five. The only thing that keeps me from giving this five stars is that Madeleine's thesis, which I thought would be a fairly continuous thread in the novel (given that it gave rise to the title), dropped out of sight completely for much of the book, such that its mention at the very end struck me as slightly jarring.

The Marriage Plot did an extraordinary job of taking me back to my college days, in the intellectual sense. College is a time when students encounter challenges to accepted modes of thought and discover new perspectives from which to approach age-old questions. This can be experienced both as intellectual excitement (so much to discover! so much is new!) and as intellectual vertigo (nothing is stable! we have to question everything?). I thought Eugenides captured that period perfectly; his characters see so much possibility in the world, but also wrestle with being overwhelmed by it.

One of my favorite things about the book was how seamlessly the perspectives of different characters were integrated. I almost didn't notice the first time the book stopped following Madeleine's story and picked up the path of another character, because the narrator's voice was so consistent. Even though you were seeing inside a different character's head, a character with completely different thoughts and emotions and motivations, it was so clearly part of the same story that I could just relax into the current of the story without worrying about changes of direction.

I mention this because it strikes me as very different from The Dovekeepers, which I also read recently. Though I loved that book too, the changes from one character's story to another were quite abrupt, and each time I worried that I wouldn't like the new narrator or wouldn't identify with her character as strongly as I had the last. I always did, in the end, but it also always took me several pages before I was comfortable with the new voice.

For those of you planning to pick this up, I'll be honest and tell you that the first couple of chapters made me feel a little dumb, as I am definitely not well-versed in the field of semiotics and several of the names dropped were unfamiliar to me. But don't worry, that feeling of being a bit out of your depth doesn't last, and in some ways I thought it was a bit of a brilliant way of reminding the reader how it feels to be treading water in a subject that at the moment is beyond your ken.

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