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Bizarre Love Triangle (A Maladjusted Book Club Post)

December 12, 2011

Did you hear? It’s a year!

Welcome to the One-Year Anniversary Edition of The Maladjusted Book Club! So glad you could join. (And don’t worry if you haven’t read the book. I tried to include a little something for any wanderer who arrives here dazed and confused.)

The Marriage Plot

Do you think Jeffrey Eugenides watches old reruns of Felicity, that WB show where a girl follows her crush across country so they can attend the same college?

When I first heard of the show, I was a brazenly new feminist, rather horrified by the premise. Oh, of course. Some girl has so little self-worth that she changes her whole life’s plan to follow a cute boy. Misogynist bullcrap.

And then I watched the show. Religiously. Until it went off the air four years later. Now I have each season on DVD, nestled carefully in the television cabinet. I watch them any time I am in a bad mood. Felicity always cheers me up.

It’s not misogynist bullcrap, in fact. It’s a show about the magic of college, friendship and self-discovery. Every shot is beautiful. Everyone talks in soothing half-whispers. While the old-fashioned love triangle is central, the writing and acting are so well-done that it feels comforting and gripping at the same time. So many girls dream of such a problem: Do I choose Noel, the sort of nerdy computer guy who is head over heels, or Ben, the mysterious blonde with a lot of emotional turmoil?

The twenty-somethings will almost always choose Ben. The thirty-somethings choose Noel.

Flash to 2011, The Marriage Plot.

Madeleine is stuck between Mitchell, the sort of nerdy religious guy and Leonard, the passionate manic-depressive.

Madeleine chooses Leonard. Felicity chooses Ben. And so the story goes, and goes.

* * *

Last week, revving up for our book club discussion, I got a link to a scathing (but hilarious) critique of The Marriage Plot by Anna Brenshaw. In short, she hates it. She thinks it’s as bad as Twilight. And she thinks Jane Austen’s heroines seem more progressive than Madeleine Hanna. She doesn’t seem appreciative of the book’s explicit sex scenes, either.

I know I shouldn’t, but I took personal offense to Brenshaw’s critique. Eugenides poured his heart and soul into a book, and she cuts it down with a sharp knife in 800 words. Here’s the thing she’s missing: It’s perfectly okay if Austen’s heroines are more progressive than Madeleine. Madeleine is living in a postmodernist world. Nothing is as it seems. No word is what it says. Just look at the passage by Roland Barthes from A Lover’s Discourse, the one that causes Madeleine to break up with Leonard the first time around: “Once the first avowal has been made, ‘I love you’ has no meaning whatsoever” (67).

(Can anyone who has been in love actually believe that bullcrap? Unlikely. Roland Barthes died a lonely man.)

Austen’s heroes (and Eliot’s, and Bronte’s) are not living in a very progressive time, so what does progressive even mean? It’s all relative. Toss it out there and watch the semiologists rip it to shreds with their cat-hands.

More than the love triangle, more than the heroine’s desire for fulfillment through sex and love and intellectual curiosity, Eugenides tries to show the magic of narrative, the way we can get lost in a story that may be strikingly similar to a story we’ve seen time and time again. The artist’s job is not to dissect language; it’s to celebrate it, to kiss the letters of each delicate word. And every page of this book is a celebration. Every paragraph begs the reader to continue a little more, and some more still. This is, after all, why we fall in love with reading. We read for the feeling of self-identification and discovery, for witty observations, for entertainment. Political and social commentary are the leftovers. So are the critics. They’re good, but they’re never as gratifying as the first hot words.

The Marriage Plot makes a case for the old-fashioned novel, for turning and turning and turning the page. It portrays the inherent war between the artist and the critic. And, in my opinion, the artist wins.

The artist always wins.

* * *

There is, of course, Mitchell. I can’t forget Mitchell.

In those days of watching Felicity, I wanted Ben. Yes, he was a little screwed up, and he did stupid things, and he kept lots of secrets from Felicity. That’s kind of why I liked him. He was so smooth, so needy for the salvation only a woman can give. Back then, I had the energy to do some saving.

Two kids and eight years of marriage later, I have since changed my opinion. Noel is the way to go.

Let me rephrase that in apostrophe form. Mitchell is the way to go, Madeleine.

True, he’s quirky. He has that religious thing going on, but he tackles theological questions in a way I’ve never heard them answered. (Clearly, I am not hanging out with the right people.)

“I’ll tell you what I learned in religious studies,” Mitchell said with a slight smile. “If you read any of the mystics, or any decent theology–Catholic, Protestant, kabbalistic–the one thing they all agree on is that God is beyond any human concept or category. That’s why Moses can’t look at Yahweh. That’s why, in Judaism, you can’t even spell God’s name. the human mind can’t conceive what God is. God doesn’t have a sex or anything else.”

“Then why is he a man with a long white beard on the Sistine Chapel?”

“Because it’s what the masses like.”

“The masses?”

“Some people need a picture. Any great religion has to be inclusive. And to be inclusive you have to accommodate different levels of sophistication.” (137)

And then, of course, Mitchell continues on his journey of self-discovery, of self-reliance. He helps people in Mother Theresa’s compound in India. He finds out his best friend is gay and doesn’t judge him. He cuts his hair and comes home and realizes that while he loves Madeleine Hanna, it might never be the right time for them.

The novel at first appears to be Madeleine’s, but it could really be Mitchell’s. In the same way that Anna Karenina is really about Nikolai Levin.

For 19th century heroes and heroines, marriage was an end rather than a beginning. Mitchell and Madeleine, on the other hand (who the hell knows about Leonard?), are just starting out.

The Maladjusted Readers’ Guide.

Do the books we read tend to capture a specific mood or time we’re going through, as Eugenides has said in interviews surrounding The Marriage Plot?

Did you identify with Madeleine’s frustrations in learning semiotics? Is there a value to dissecting language as a means of communication? (If I was going to be really semiotical, I’d add a footnote here. But I don’t know how.)

Who wins, the critic or the artist?

Why do you think the book’s second-to-last scene ends in a Quaker meeting? (Can I tell you how much I love that?)

What do you think will happen to Leonard at the end of The Marriage Plot? And Madeleine? And Mitchell? Is The Big Chill in their future?

What, if anything, did the explicit sex scenes between Madeleine and Leonard add to the story?

Which character did you identify most with? Why?

What is the deal with the following picture?

I look much better in person, I assure you. Just ask the author of this blog.

Nice shirt, Jeff.

 

*Don’t forget to subscribe to the comments section NOW so you can keep abreast (a-breast! a-breast!) of our ongoing discussion.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate December 12, 2011 at 9:44 am

I’m going to be honest. I really didn’t like Madeleine. She frustrated me. She was so unaware of her privileges. She was flippant about her future. And I know, she was only 22, but still it bugged me. She seemed blind to her world, blind to other’s feelings and needs, blind to her own intelligence and power.

Mitchell, however was fascinating. His introduction was gradual, external. And he grew. Not in the pure upward trajectory that would make him a bore, but with failures and doubt. I was sad he left Mother Teresa’s the way he did, but it was utterly human. And his choice to stay with Madeleine and her family after Leonard was hopeful, though problematic.

Leonard. Oh, what to say there? I don’t like him, but when he narrates, he draws you in.

I wonder if this is the story of three people’s experiments with choosing to control their own lives? Leonard, to disastrous results, gaining and losing in the same choice. Mitchell, through travel, through waiting with Madeleine, through choosing to let go of that dream. Madeleine, slowly, letting go of her boy centered world for one of her own creation. (Yes, I know in her college years, she had times without boys, but still, it was defined by that absence.)

What about the time setting? I found it interesting to set the novel in the 80s, with it’s own excesses and sense of joblessness after college. I wonder how that would resonate with today’s grads.

Oh, and yes! I adored going back to a college (though mine was a bit different) and remember sharply learning about the meaninglessness of words (which I reject) and the essential nature of deconstruction (also not my thing).

Life is art. Of course, the artist wins.

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Vanessa December 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm

I agree with Kate’s assessment of the characters. I too was drawn into Mitchell’s story and how it unfolded throughout the novel. Perhaps, in contrast to Medeleine’s somewhat unaware personality, Mitchell was so deep, so present, so aware about himself and his journey. So alive! Although too many times I might find myself in the shallow dwellings of my life (like Madeleine), I would rather identify more with Mitchell and his quest for knowledge and understanding for himself, not for anyone else, and to gain an inner peace about what he believes even if his beliefs are in a stage of unknown or transition.

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Jana December 12, 2011 at 8:06 pm

I love that it was set in the ’80′s. That really worked for me. What a wonderful deconstruction (ha!) of these characters, Kate!

Eugenides made a point (when I saw him at the Free Library of Philadelphia) to say that when he started this book, he had no idea that the recession would match up so well with the 1980′s recession he was writing about.

An important question for us to consider, especially in light of comparing modern times to 19th century (usually English) times: do women always define themselves by relationships, and men, by what they’ve “accomplished”?

Pardon the quotation marks. Blame it on the semiologists!

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Randi December 12, 2011 at 11:00 am

Enjoyed your post! Did not enjoy Anna Brenshaw’s post (though I appreciated her link to the New York Magazine article)! The winner is most definitely the artist.
I totally identified with Madeleine (though I don’t have a sister) in that I was an English major (at Brooklyn College, not Brown) because I loved books and couldn’t think of anything else to major in.
I couldn’t put the book down…what more can a reader ask?

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Jana December 12, 2011 at 8:07 pm

I agree. I couldn’t put the book down, either. I suspect Anna Brenshaw had other expectations of the book that it didn’t fulfill. But I don’t think I entered with any particular expectations, other than to be entertained. I think that’s the best way to start a book, no?

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Cathy December 13, 2011 at 12:20 am

I was not thrilled. I finished it which says something (as you know I have some that haven’t reached that status). I, too, didn’t like Madeline. I didn’t like Leonard either. I could see the story of Mitchell – lost and trying to find his way. He has a brief infatuation and (lucky for him) he realizes that Madeline didn’t love him for him, but for the stable, boring security he provides.

What bothered me more about the book though, and I am willing to explore my ignorance here, is that it seemed like you would miss (and I did) so much if you were not a lit major in college. I wasn’t. This meant times, most especially in the beginning, where I couldn’t relate to all those references to this author and that character. It meant nothing to me. I remember feeling that the depth and breadth of it felt forced and false, like Eugenides was trying just a little too hard.

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Jana December 13, 2011 at 4:57 pm

I understand your point, Cathy. I didn’t think about how I might feel if I had not majored in English. I loved the book because it felt like it was written just for me, in fact! But I think you make a valid point (as usual). I assume that Eugenides hopes that the love and life story and the other social commentary makes the novel stand up to a wider audience, but perhaps his intended audience is a little narrower.

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Rebecca December 13, 2011 at 3:00 am

I have to agree with Cathy. I was not blown away by the book and I feel as though I missed some nuances. When I read Visit from the Good Squad, I felt like I had made this jump from casual reader to literature connoisseur and was all ready for the heavies. But I just couldn’t get past the basic plot line of The Marriage Plot and see it for its artistic values – but to elude me of these basic themes is not that difficult!

Despite all that, I love reading what others thought and saw in the book. I never considered the significance of the book nearly-ending at Quaker meeting. What I know about Quakerism (from studying at Quaker college) is that the belief system spans a spectrum of peace-seeking. Sometimes its very Jesus-centric but other times its simply being present, and ultimately whatever conclusion you come to about God/Spirit/Light is A-ok with them. So in the context of the conclusion of the novel when Madeline, Leonard and Mitchell all finally decide what’s best (at least for the immediate future) for themselves, perhaps its just them finding their respective “inner Lights” and going forward.

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Jana December 13, 2011 at 5:02 pm

I do think that all the characters struggle for the year or two out of college and then proceed forward in a positive direction. Mitchell, to me, seems to have it more together than Madeleine. I liked Madeleine, but I appreciate Mitchell because he is a seeker. It doesn’t seem like the other characters are. Leonard, for one, literally runs away from his wife.

I don’t want you to think that I love heavy literature. I rarely have time for books that can’t keep my attention–I’m too busy! And I do think Eugenides is considered one of the heavies with regard to Middlesex. This was the first book of his I really enjoyed. (But if you like Jennifer Egan, I can recommend her other books! I loved Look at Me. Try that one first!)

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KQ @ Roots and Wings December 14, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Oh Miss Jana, what did you get us into? When I first read the title I was quite excited because it has the word “Marriage” in it so I immediately decided to read it on my honeymoon. A light honeymoon read, it was not.

My first impression of the characters were that they were hopelessly in to be tragically brilliant. This frustrates me as their energy and brain power could always be better spent. Madeline is the most guilty as this because she come from the most comfortable background yet thinks she has the worst of the struggles. Perhaps it my years as a private school teacher have made me less patient of this attribute.

I adore Mitchell, he is the type of guy that you don’t date but look back later and wish you did.

Madeline chooses Leonard because her privileged background leads her to believe that things can be organized, treated, and fixed with family dinners and clean sheets on Wednesdays. In the end, I don’t dislike her as much as I did in the beginning.

The construction of the plot really stood out to me. The plots within the “Marriage Plot” focus more on the journey than the end goal. One would assume the end goal of college is graduation, yet we read the minute details of the characters’ college courses just to have Madeline skip graduation. Madeline and Leonard live out their relationship in a roller coaster that travels from college to the science center, yet we hear about the wedding after the fact. Mitchell travels throughout Europe and India with the end goal of his studying under a professor. His time there is described in a side note. Perhaps Eugenides point is that the story is journey, not the preconceived end points should be focused on. The lessons and the growth happen there, and if realized, might lead to better end points. The characters, as well as the readers, have a lot to learn from this.

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Leslie December 15, 2011 at 9:15 am

Hi, Jana! I missed the boat on this discussion, but after reading its first installment, I’m off to Amazon, where two-day shipping is possible even to Arkansas!

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