Wednesday, April 27, 2016

THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides

Mitchell, Leonard, and Madeleine are Brown University students in the 1980s, and Mitchell is the odd man out.  He’s in love with Madeleine, but she only has eyes for Leonard, who is undergoing treatment for manic depression.  Leonard is smart, handsome, and poor, while Madeleine is smart, beautiful, and rich.  I could never quite fathom what the well-adjusted Madeleine sees in Leonard, as she is not a natural caretaker, and I attribute my bewilderment to a failing of the author for not making Leonard a whole lot more charismatic.  Mitchell, on the other hand, who is considering divinity school but not joining the ministry, seems pretty vanilla until we get Leonard’s take on Mitchell as a young Tom Waits, which turned my opinion 180 degrees to the good.  For me, that’s the point at which Mitchell comes alive.  After college, while Madeleine and Leonard are wallowing in despair in Cape Cod, Mitchell sets out with his friend Larry on a pilgrimage to India, by way of Paris and Athens.  My favorite part of the novel is after Mitchell and Larry part ways, and Mitchell becomes a volunteer at a charity hospital in Calcutta.  Here, I think Eugenides does an excellent job of describing Mitchell’s struggle between his squeamishness over the condition of the patients and his profound desire to do something worthwhile.   Dispensing medications, shunning rickshaws, and chastising his friend Mike for his relationship with a 17-year-old Thai girl, he strives not to be the typical American tourist. Unfortunately, this section has to end, and we have to return to the Madeleine/Leonard story, which seems to be a rehash of Leonard’s battle with mental illness and Madeleine’s questioning of whether she is up to the task of coping with said battle.  Mitchell is the only character whose self-awareness actually grows in this novel, and I would have liked this book more if there had been more Mitchell and less Madeleine.

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