Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this book late the night before packing my husband, our two kids, my Vita-Mix, and ten days’ worth of stuff into our VW Jetta for an ambitious road trip around Lake Erie and then back to New England. I thought about writing a review right then, but the desire for sleep won out. As a result, I’ve been mulling this book over for the past couple of weeks, and my view of it has shifted a fair amount in that time.

At first, four things stood out for me:

1) I did not like Madeleine. Beautiful, sought-after, wealthy, part of a loving family, intelligent: just the kind of woman I seek to befriend and then feel inferior to for the duration of our friendship.

2) My opinion of Leonard changed as his mental illness developed/was revealed. I discovered a wellspring of empathy for him even as I felt a vicarious need to just escape him and all of the assistance and guidance he required.

3) I felt incredibly jealous of the reading lists of the characters. Their reading lists included books I read in college, books I was assigned in college but didn’t really read, and books I’d never even heard of but which sounded absolutely intriguing. They made me want to go back to undergrad and just immerse myself in reading and writing again.

4) I liked Mitchell—with all of his confusion and whining and searching—the best.

But during my two-weeks-plus of thinking about what to say about The Marriage Plot, I discovered something funny: I kept mixing it up with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Why on earth is that? Is it the mental confusion or the depression or the sex? Is it because Eugenides’ style is similar to Franzen’s? I’m not sure, but my opinion of a book tends to fall if I confuse it with another book.

But then I began reading two books about spiritual practice, The Sacred Way by Tony Jones and The Pen and the Bell by Holly Hughes and Brenda Miller. Reading these, I finally recognized that Mitchell was on a spiritual quest. Here he was reciting the Jesus Prayer and attempting to experience spiritual awakening through service and making pilgrimages and engaging in lectio divina. He went about it in a rather haphazard manner and much of it centered around either trying to forget Madeleine or trying to gain divine assistance to bring her to him, but it was clearly a spiritual quest. In my thinking of the book, all of the other characters have sort of faded into the background and Mitchell has moved to the forefront.

I almost want to read The Marriage Plot again to see if I can spot more of Mitchell’s spiritual quest. I don’t think I will, though, at least not right now. Mostly, like with the books I didn’t read or don’t remember from college, I wish I’d paid more attention when I read The Marriage Plot the first time. I still don’t like it as much as I liked Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides, but this realization about Mitchell has bumped it up a few notches in my esteem.

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