Sunday, October 23, 2011

Eugenides' The Marriage Plot

Finishing up The Marriage Plot and I have to say that I really enjoyed this book. It traces the lives of several young Brown University students during the last few months of their graduation and the year or two which follow. What strikes me about the book is the empathy that Eugenides has about those who suffer from manic depression (which I guess today is called bipolar disorder). I've never really been around someone who suffers from this disorder but reading the portrayal of Leonard and how he suffers was eye-opening, not only for him but for those around him. It has made me consider depression in a new way. I always had this underlying belief perhaps that people who are suffering from manic depression just need to get their act together, quit their job, move to a new town, and that would solve their problems. But I can see from reading this that my lack of experience or knowledge of someone suffering really gave me mistaken notions about what it means to be clinically depressed.

But it's not a depressing book.

Eugenides is also very interested in religion: not in some pedestrian Bible-thumper sense but in true spiritual questions: what are good works? What is morality? How do historical events detailed in religious texts have to say about modern life? But Eugenides does this with skill and, again, empathy. He never has simplistic answers to these complex questions.

There are things which feel dated: the upper class east coasters and their adherence to social conventions. Though the book is set in the early 80s, it feels like it could be from the 60s or even earlier in the way these people move through the world, their obsessions and the language and interests which distinguish them from the rest of the world. Particularly nowadays given all that's going on in the world (Occupy Wall Street, etc.) the rich here seem sheltered and cut off from much of what happens in the world. Rich people today, I think, aim to blend in with the "common folk" in a certain way. No one wants to appear to be out of touch with modern life. Think about the casual style of Bill Gates or famous Hollywood actors. Sure, they are rich and live like rich people, but there is a kind of acknowledgement that one should still be OF this world (our world, the non-rich). But there isn't such a distinction in Eugenides world which says something about what it means to be rich today (as opposed to 30 years ago).

Another thing which struck me is how little parents or parental figures play a role in the lives of these young people. They are almost dismissed in every case except for Madeleine's parents (who really only serve to represent the barometer of society really, a foil against which the actions of the young people can be measured). Parents are either totally out of touch, out of "it" or just unaware of what is going on in the minds of their kids. Maybe that has a ring of truth to it but there is little conscious attempt by the characters at undoing what their (our) parents do and though we all want to be independent at a young age, it works in a more complex way than is portrayed here, I think. Still, Eugenides isn't interested in inter-generational conflict but in other issues...

I've not read any of Eugenides other works but getting through this really makes me want to give Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides a try.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review, Greg! I LOVE J. Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides is a big favourite). I've got my tix to see him at Victoria Hall next month and I'm looking forward to reading The Marriage Plot. Can you lend me your copy? :)