Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Readerly Rambles: 09/05/2012
I really thought I would hate this book. I enjoyed The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, but I was hesitant to pick up Eugenides' latest. My fear was that it would be a novel about spoiled twits having loads of sex while playing at being intellectuals and name-dropping like the most obnoxious "pretentious coffee shop boy" you can imagine. Well... it is about spoiled twits having sexual romps and name dropping theorists, writers, and philosophers like nobody's business. However, it is also about much, much more than that. In the hands of less skilled author, this plot would have been mind numbingly obnoxious. Lucky for me, Eugenides is a powerful writer; ah yes, the prose is strong with this one.
The novel is set in the late 1970s - early 1980s and concerns three young people -- Madeline (an English major with a love for Victorian literature), her friend Mitchell (a Philosophy and Religion major), and Leonard (a brilliantly well-rounded biology major). The title of The Marriage Plot comes from Madeline's theses on marriage in the novels of Austen through Eliot, but is also a metaphor for Madeline's life as a woman academic in the late 70s. Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar has recently been published, feminist literary criticism is growing, and Madeline struggles with balancing her life in academia with the pressure she feels to be a caring, selfless companion. Yes, shades of The Bell Jar all over the place. How does one marry a career and what's socially expected of women? Madeline is smart, but she knows she isn't the unfeeling, cerebral academic and feels that her love of Victorian literature -- based on a love of the characters, plots, and writing -- doesn't jive with the current academic climate. It is such a "girl" thing to love Jane Eyre for the story and not as a novel to be theoretically ripped to shreds and dissected by every school of literary criticism. Madeline can sense the pressure to be dismissive and cynical of everything, but she still keeps up her love of literature. She also sacrifices a great deal for Leonard because that is what one does for love, but her desire to be an independent scholar of literature and caring for a very brilliant, but very ill, biploar man places her in a position of having to choose between her career and her relationship. Eugenides excells at capturing the conflict many women -- even today -- struggle with: the balance between career and home life.
Mitchell and Leonard are also equally rich characters. Mitchell goes on a post graduation journey to Europe and eventually to India with a friend. He is exploring religion -- and very serious about it -- and all the while pining for Madeline. Mitchell struggles with wanting to devote himself to some higher power and empower himself to be a better person, yet he still struggles with the fact that he is a human and has human impulses and weaknesses. For example, he bails on volunteering at one mission when he realizes he will have to clean up a grown man's feces and, of course, Mitchell is disappointed and humiliated with himself. Mitchell also yearns to be free of sexual lust, but as a young man he finds it nearly impossible and he is appalled by his inability to control his thoughts. Leonard lands a post at a famous research facility, but his bipolar medication is at odds with his intellectual pursuits. When he is medicated he is slow, sluggish, and lacks his brilliance. When not medicated the brilliance returns, but at an emotional cost. Leonard, too, struggles with aligning his dreams of research science with his medical limitations.
Essentially Madeline, Mitchell, and Leonard are struggling because they are intellectually precocious, but lack emotional maturity or have other barriers (such as mental illness) that prevent them from achieving their dreams as they expected. I think that this is certainly a near universal truth for most college graduates. I may have this feeling because I remember being bright in college but an absolute idiot with emotional choices at 22 (my what a difference 10 years makes) and I work at a university and constantly encounter students who are very smart, but hampered by relationships, self-esteem issues, struggles with parents, and other concerns. Yes, one can read and understand Kristeva, write a thesis on Dostoevsky, read Flaubert in French, and still weep over a bad break-up while eating a jar of peanut butter, get drunk and make out with an jerk, or argue parents over living with a boyfriend.
Eugenides' ability to write such complex characters really made the story real. I sympathized with the characters and wanted to beat the youthful egoist out of them. The skill to write such humanly real characters takes a deft writer with keen observational powers and Eugenides certainly rises to the occasion.
What I'm reading: I am absolutely gobsmack in love with The Little Stranger. I've marked my copy up with all manner of notes and I cannot wait to finish this book. It is so so so good and I'd say it is Waters best novel. I don't want to do anything else -- like write blog posts -- I just want to READ!
I'm also steadily working through Gone with the Wind; I'm enjoying it -- especially from a feminist perspective. Scarlett is not a proper Southern Belle and I like her ballsy independence, but I'm most intrigued by the descriptions of life for Southern women. Subservient, self-sacrificing, and managing entire plantations, yet most women are encouraged to eat little, swoon, and act like an air-headed ninny. Also big on the yuck factor is that fact that Scarlett is 16 and Rhett Butler around 35 when he first "notices" Scarlett. Ewwww... but then again, this is common for that time. I also have an issue with the language. I know it is historically accurate, but my skin crawls every time I read racial slurs. It makes me uncomfortable, that whole my ancestors once owned other humans really bothers me.
And, of course, my Harry Potter reading is trucking along. I read a few pages before bed at night or while the kids are playing. I'm still reading Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone and loving it as much as the first read.
What's Up Next: I plan on finishing Waters, the first Harry Potter book, and the first section of Gone with the Wind this week. Then I will start cracking on the second Harry Potter book, maybe pick-up a graphic novel or two, and plug away at the second section of Mitchell's tome.