The Marriage Plot

Presently, Billy had one hand sensitively in the back pocket of Madeleine’s jeans. She had her hand in the back pocket of his jeans. They were moving along like that, each cupping a handful of the other. In Madeleine’s face was a stupidity Mitchell had never seen before. It was the stupidity of all normal people. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everyone who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.

pg. 77

This is a book that dares you to judge its characters. And at another point in my life, I might have. I might have found Leonard’s posturing childish, or Madeleine’s neediness ugly, or Mitchell’s fawning sad and pathetic. In this book there are no superheroes, just people we know- or maybe we are. Their problems (with the exception of mental illness) are painfully banal. They’re weak and flawed and failing in predictable, embarrassing ways.

Nothing much happens either, plot-wise. No one dies. No one really surprises us. Things end more or less how they begin.

Nor does the book try to teach us anything. The big questions that come up– and there are many– go largely unanswered. Like: to what extent is love a selfish act? Such as: what is goodness? And: so what?

But in the end I do like it. It’s done just right. It’s a sensitive examination of a kind of neuroticism that comes with being young and intelligent in our current society where youth and intelligence are so loved and hated and envied and scrutinized. And the author handles his characters with such skill, too, that he manages to be all story, with his own views, if he has them, skillfully hidden behind the prose.

Recently, we read Gulliver’s Travels in book club, and in the discussion we concluded that the author’s own opinions are similarly inscrutible in that case. But unlike Jonathan Swift, whose puzzling neutrality is built from a pathological cynicism where he mocks his characters for their blemishes and then mocks his own mockery of them, and so on, Eugenides seems to accomplish the same by doing the opposite: withholding judgment entirely.

It does seem to be a feature of modern literature that it speaks by holding up a mirror to society. I’m sure there are English majors that can tell you way more about that.

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