Friday 23 June 2017

Review: Fiction: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Fourth Estate, £13.99

Jeffrey Eugenides certainly isn't afraid to take risks. His acclaimed debut novel told the story of the five Lisbon sisters, who all committed suicide within a single year. The beautifully written Virgin Suicides, set in 1970s Detroit, was an astonishing tale, told from the point of view of the neighbourhood boys who were obsessed with the teenage siblings.

The 1993 novel was later turned into an ethereal movie directed by Sofia Coppola, starring Kirsten Dunst, Kathleen Turner and James Woods.

Nine years later, Eugenides published the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, an epic tale about a Greek-American hermaphrodite. That ambitious story spanned continents and generations, and won Eugenides a devoted following.

Almost a decade later, his much-anticipated third novel has hit bookshelves, and its apparently conventional subject matter is shocking -- for such an experimental writer.

The Marriage Plot involves a love triangle among three students at Brown -- the Ivy League university in Rhode Island where Eugenides himself studied. It's set in a single year in the 1980s and focuses on Madeleine Hanna, an English major from a well-to-do WASP family and her relationships with two very different men.

Madeleine is a compulsive reader who loves the 19th Century fiction of such novelists as Jane Austen which culminate in wedding vows. She believes that 20th Century developments such as feminism, divorce and pre-nuptial agreements have destroyed this richly rewarding storyline.

Eugenides isn't so sure and he places Madeleine in a romantic plot of her own, albeit a very modern one. She falls passionately in love with Leonard, a brilliant but troubled scientist.

Their relationship does not run smoothly, however, much to the joy of Mitchell, her friend who is fascinated by religion and believes he is destined to marry the unattainable yet flirtatious Madeleine.

The novel opens on graduation day when an uncharacteristically dishevelled Madeleine has to deal with the consequences of a drunken blunder. A flashback sheds an affectionate glance at college life, but life outside its sheltered confines is a lot tougher on Madeleine and her men as the action moves between Cape Cod, Calcutta and Greece.

Despite its 400-odd pages, The Marriage Plot initially appears to be a much more compact work than its predecessors, not to mention far less controversial. Unsurprisingly Eugenides, who has been compared with that other great chronicler of American life Jonathan Franzen, doesn't agree.

At a reading of his novel in Dublin last week, the writer claimed that although the latest novel isn't as risky as his previous work, he is still able to be experimental within its conventional structure, particularly in relation to his treatment of Leonard, who suffers from depression and manic episodes. And indeed, these episodes are wonderfully portrayed, as is Mitchell's volunteering stint in India.

Originally Eugenides had planned to write the novel as a two-hander focussing on Leonard and Madeleine, but the more he wrote about Mitchell, the more he liked him. The result is a three-part novel that, while immensely enjoyable, is less satisfying than his previous works. However, that's some yardstick for any writer to be judged by.

Although his characters aren't as fully realised as they could be and the plot is slack in parts, there are some wonderful moments in The Marriage Plot. And it's likely to win Eugenides even more fans.

They'll be happy to learn he's currently working on a book of short stories, so we shouldn't need to wait another decade for our next fix.

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