Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: The Marriage Plot (#8)

The Marriage Plot.

#8: THE MARRIAGE PLOT, by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

2011 was a year of discovering great writers I had never previously read: Marilynne Robinson (more on her later) and Jeffrey Eugenides. Eugenides was a name I was familiar with, but I’d somehow never gotten around to him. In 2011, I read the vibrant and sprawling Middlesex with Lulu; The Virgin Suicides and then watched Sofia Coppola’s excellent adaptation by myself one night; and then, just a few weeks ago, I read his long-awaited new novel, The Marriage Plot.

I had a good feeling about this book. Twenty pages in, I was totally engrossed. It’s been a long time since I read a book that was hard to put down on the nightstand. I finished the novel quickly and triumphantly and my mind was spinning. I say this with a bit of reservation. This is why: I admit that The Marriage Plot held my rapt attention because I am an English major. If there was ever a novel written just for English majors, this is it. I hesitate to write this, for the admission makes it sound like non-English majors wouldn’t enjoy this book. I don’t think that’s true, but I do think the pleasure of this story is greatly enhanced if you are–like its characters–also a university-educated, drifting, literary snob.

It’s 1982. Madeleine Hanna is about to graduate with a degree in English from Brown University. She is kind of a mess, but a restrained mess. She, like most of us, is striving to stay in control of her life. But her desire for control is lost when she falls in love with a completely uncontrollable young man, Leonard Bankhead. Leonard is almost everything Madeleine is not, except for the fact that they were both literature majors from Brown. That sounds like a strong and compelling similarity, but in Eugenides’ world, it’s not enough to keep them together. Leonard suffers from bipolar disorder and drags Madeleine with him, causing her to realize he is one thing she cannot analyze, describe, and control.

The novel could be entirely about Madeleine and Leonard’s love affair, but then Eugenides makes it a little more interesting by establishing a trio. We are introduced to Mitchell Grammaticus, also a classmate from Brown, who has been infatuated with Madeleine for years. Mitchell was my favorite of the these three main characters. He is thoughtful and lovable and pitiable; Mitchell’s story is the most vulnerable and relatable of the three. Like so many college students today, Mitchell graduates and wants to do something with his life, so he goes abroad. He volunteers with Mother Teresa’s infirmary in Calcutta. He looks for answers and Eugenides does not give him many. But we like Mitchell. We want him to “win,” in whatever form that takes, and we are given a gentle conclusion.

The brilliance of The Marriage Plot, for me, was Eugenides’ profound ability to read one’s thoughts. He has a prescient way of writing about people that reminds me of a more basic Proust. He loops in and out of characters’ minds, examining and explaining them with mercy and patience. It is a human novel, a clever reminder of the weakness we all bear. Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell had nothing to do with me and everything to do with me. This, I think, is a mark of an enduring, worthwhile novel.

Monday Snax

Quiet Sunday
Sunday at home, with all the new books on the shelves.

SUCH a peaceful and pleasant weekend! On Saturday, I went to the annual library book sale at Gordon Avenue and was soon joined by Celeste, Sarah, and Laura. I’ve been to a lot of book sales in my day, but let me tell you: This one takes the cake. High-quality, just about brand new books in every imaginable genre for a few dollars? This is my version of heaven. I walked away with 32 beautiful new books and paid a mere $30 for all of them. Sunday morning at the SPCA and then an afternoon lazing around the house due to a pulled hamstring from overly rambunctious pups. We watched The Fellowship of the Ring and we are not going to apologize for it. (I forgot how LONG that movie is…)

Snax:

My Parents Were Home Schooling Anarchists. A piece in the New York Times by Margaret Heidenry about what it was like to grow up as a homeschooler before it was legal. It’s like The Glass Castle from a homeschooling-centric perspective. Extremely fascinating! It’s so interesting how much the homeschooling movement has changed. When my parents decided to homeschool in 1988, it still wasn’t legal in many states, but in 1993, it was legal in all 50. Since then, it’s a rising trend, although the dominion has shifted from free-thinking bohemians to very conservative evangelicals. (New York Times)

The Piano Lesson. A memory from Jared Nigro about his piano teacher and an unexpected gift of mercy. (The Hairpin)

Women in War, Women in Peace. A plea to stop thinking about war as a male-only circumstance. Men start wars and men fight them, but we never think about the women left at home to pick up the pieces. (The Atlantic)

Democrats, Republicans Have Mirror-Image Views. Just more proof that politics are pointless. (The Atlantic)

Black Cat Auditions in Hollywood, 1961. There were a lot of eager women trying to make their black cats into movie stars in 1961, apparently. Very entertaining series of photos. I feel like training a cat to act would be akin to training a fish to sing. (Retronaut)

How To Name Your First Novel. A helpful series of formulas for naming that novel you’ve been working on. (NPR)

Collection of Rejected Titles for Classic Books. Would you have read The Great Gatsby if it had been titled Trimalchio in West Egg? Yeah. I didn’t think so. Good saves from editors and publishers alike, who usually picked the better title for the soon-to-be classic. (Flavorwire)

The Pleasures and Perils of Re-Reading. These days, I don’t make time for re-reading anything, which is something of a shame. I’ll probably start re-reading in my middle age. Right now, there’s too much still to be read. I do miss the distinct pleasure of returning to a beloved book, however. I bought the lovely and widely acclaimed Pevear/Volonkhosky translation of Anna Karenina at the aforementioned book sale, however, and I may have to return to that soon… (The Millions)

Great Painter: Elizabeth Peyton. Cate reviews Peyton’s work, which I really love. Had never heard of her before, but I’m glad I have now! (The Charlotte)

An Afternoon with Theresa di Scianni. This looks like such a peaceful, pleasant place to live. (Petits Papiers)

Says the Hummer in the Land of the Hybrid. A mother’s reflection on having four kids when having four kids is not especially chic or socially acceptable. I thought of this in relation to my own mother, toting the four of us around in “inconvenient” places. (Girl’s Gone Child)

Misty Manley: Fake Anything Designs. Hot ham water! Night cheese! (Design Work Life)

Beat the Winter Hair Blues. My hair gets kind of gross and limp in the winter. Good tips, especially if you’re prone to splurging on hair care products (which I’m not). (She Lets Her Hair Down)

What Do French Women Have That We Don’t? A lot, apparently. When it comes to fashion, style, and beauty, don’t we all just want to be French deep down? (HiP Paris)

Why I didn’t like “The Help”

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

I just finished reading The Help. So many people read it and raved about it. I was always a little suspicious, but when my boss offered me her copy this past week, I thought I might as well give it a try. I admit that I liked it more than I thought I was going to. There were moments of insight and emotionally riveting sections. The maids especially tug at your heartstrings. Overall, however, I wouldn’t recommend The Help to anyone.

I am tired of reading books where white people are acting as the saviors for black people.

I am tired of reading books in which characters are either 100 percent good or 100 percent evil; people are not that plainly defined in real life. With the exception of a few minor characters, everyone in this book is either a hero or a villain. That gets very tiresome very quickly and it makes for two-dimensional, predictable characters. (Not to mention that Stockett never addresses the fact as to why her hero is close friends with the top villain. Somehow this is rational.)

I am tired of white people appropriating the voices of black people and using bad grammar and slang to do it. This is 2011, Kathryn Stockett. Your chance to be Harriet Beecher Stowe has long passed. There is, of course, the question as to whether the young, rich, white Stockett can tell these stories. She can tell them–she is from Jackson, after all–but should she? I lean toward the fact that she shouldn’t. This is an ethical and theoretical dilemma that could lead to all sorts of philosophical, critical tumbleweeds, but I’ll just say that, for me, I mistrusted Stockett’s representation because of who she was. This, perhaps, is not fair. But what, really, does 42-year-old Stockett know about being a black maid in Mississippi a full decade before she was even born? Her presumption sets a hurdle that is nearly too high for me to climb.

It is a breezy read, but it is not a new or meaningful novel. (And don’t even get me started on that lazy ending.) At the end of the day, The Help is just another book about Southern white people patting themselves on their backs for what they did and didn’t do for black people. It’s high time we stopped repeating variations of that fable.

The Maltese Falcon and hyper-masculine novels

For the church classics book club, we’re reading Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon. I’m not a big fan. I actually roll my eyes at just about everything the protagonists do. For example, take this exchange:

She suddenly moved close to him on the settee and cried angrily: “Can I buy you with my body?”

Their faces were a few inches apart. Spade took her face between his hands and he kissed her mouth roughly and contemptuously. Then he sat back and said: “I’ll think it over.” His face was hard and furious.

Or this one:

Spade’s arms went around her, holding her to him, muscles bulging his blue sleeves, a hand cradling her head, its fingers half lost among red hair, a hand moving groping fingers over her slim back. His eyes burned yellowly.

Um, barf. Most of the book sounds just like this, like it was written by an 11th-grade boy who is trying his hand at noir short stories.

Here we have the detective Sam Spade, 110% American male, fighting the dark forces with his cool masculinity. The dark forces, so far, happen to be embodied by a highly stereotyped man named Joel Cairo, who is usually just called “the Levantine” (had to look it up; old-fashioned term for someone from Israel, Lebanon, or Syria) and is just a prototypical image of the “Arab enemy.” It’s gross. And then we have Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the dame in the quotation above. You can pretty much guess that she’s always sexy and impulsive and pulling wads of cash out of her bra.

Some people like these kinds of novels. My dad, for instance, likes Ayn Rand and Clive Cussler. He’d probably like Dan Brown, too, if he had read him. It’s easy to see why Hollywood also likes these kinds of novels and is always adapting them into film; they read like run-of-the-mill screenplays. Authors like Rand, Cussler, Brown, and yes, Hammett, play into a formula in which one can simply plug in a number of variables–and then, poof! Bestselling novel. Add some grossly overused and stereotypical characters (uber-macho, dangerous man + voluptuous woman in need of rescue) and lots of guns, explosions, sex, and cliff-hanger moments and you’re golden.

Personally, I fundamentally reject the notion that literature can be crafted from such an easy set of variables. There’s a reason why Dashiell Hammett is remembered for basically inventing the detective novel genre, but there’s also a reason why no one remembers him as a great writer. The same goes for Ayn Rand, Clive Cussler, and Dan Brown. They write dramatic page-turners, but they don’t write great literature.

I kind of want someone to prove me wrong, though. Do you know of a novel that fits this general hyper-macho mold that is generally regarded as part of the literary canon? If so, why can it be included and not these others? Hemingway and Steinbeck come to mind as writers of hyper-masculine novels who are considered critical to the American canon. I think the differentiation between them and the crowd of thinly disguised screenwriters is that Hemingway and Steinbeck knew when to avoid a crippling stereotype and craft a deep, meaningful character. Any thoughts? Am I totally off-base in my utter disregard for this novel and those like it?

Top 10 Books of 2010: #1

The Corrections

#1: THE CORRECTIONS, Jonathan Franzen

For the past few weeks, I went wandering back through the 10 best books I read in 2010. I conclude the year’s review with these fragmented thoughts on my favorite book of the year, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

It’s been a year of dysfunctional family epics: Ada, The Man Who Loved Children, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and now this: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I guess I have a thing for this genre.

I know this is not the Franzen novel that everyone’s been talking about this year, but I hadn’t previously read any of his work and so I wanted to get started before Freedom came out. My reservations about “modern” literature have already been briefly expressed, but I felt like they all dissolved after I had read The Corrections.

Franzen’s ability to inhabit the dreary, seemingly hopeless Lambert family is astonishing to me. At first glance, this sounds like a supremely boring book: This middle-class family is falling apart and the mild-mannered matriarch is obsessed with getting her whole disjointed family together for Christmas one last time. Why would anyone want to read a nearly 600-page tome about that?

Well, for one thing, because Franzen is a bit of a genius. I don’t know how he does it; I really don’t. Some critics called him a “prophet.”  The Corrections came out a few weeks before 9/11. After we recovered from the shock, we began to realize that this novel was already proclaiming the domestic malaise that we would face in the post-9/11 world; it was a quiet and almost eerie warning.

To my mind, Franzen’s most impressive ability is his skill in replicating voices. Many authors do not write convincing characters of their opposite sex (Dickens and Per Petterson come to mind). Franzen does not seem troubled by this at all. In fact, I think the most believable character is the mother, Enid Lambert. Her gestures and fears are so perfectly expressed that you feel like you might have spent a lot of time with her at a long, fluorescent family reunion.

One of the most moving exchanges for me was a passage I have already written about here. Franzen most likely did not intend for this to be read religiously at all, but I read the exchange between the Lambert siblings, Denise and Chip, as the perfect description of the Gospel. We cannot stand to be forgiven. And yet over and over again, a beneficent Franzen offers his characters forgiveness. They are unwilling to extend or accept forgiveness, but they crave it, just like we do. The Corrections is a beautiful novel about the complex web of emotions that families create, but it is also a map through the labyrinth of familial tension; it’s letting you into the secret of the way out.

In short, it is one of the most full novels I have ever read. At the conclusion of David Gates’s review of The Corrections, he writes:

No one book, of course, can provide everything we want in a novel. But a book as strong as ”The Corrections” seems ruled only by its own self-generated aesthetic: it creates the illusion of giving a complete account of a world, and while we’re under its enchantment it temporarily eclipses whatever else we may have read.

The Corrections is lovely and sad and true. What more can you ask from a genuine work of art?

With that, I’ve spoken my peace about the 10 best books I read in 2010. Thanks for reading along. Now, onward to 2011! There is much to be conquered.

Top 10 Books of 2010: #6

Wives and Daughters

#6: WIVES AND DAUGHTERS, Elizabeth Gaskell

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’d like to introduce #6, Elizabeth Gaskell’s beautiful novel Wives and Daughters.

Rachel and Emily Hylton are responsible for simultaneously introducing me to two great loves: BBC period miniseries and Elizabeth Gaskell. During a luxurious winter weekend in Asheville a few years ago, we watched the brilliant, 301-minute epic film of “Wives and Daughters.” It was perfect, light, and funny; just about everything one could hope from a rendition of a great novel. The only thing was that I hadn’t actually read Wives and Daughters at the time.

I had heard of Gaskell before, but frankly, by the time I watched “Wives and Daughters” with the Hylton sisters, I had long since read all of Austen, all of George Eliot, and all of the elder Brontës to convince myself that I had exhausted my appetite for 19th-century English women novelists. I had no plans to start reading Gaskell’s novels (even though I did subsequently devour the other BBC reproductions of her novels Cranford and North and South, which are really excellent, particularly during exam week).

My mind was changed after I’d been assigned to read Wives and Daughters in a class on the British novel at UNC. I had bought the thick paperback copy for the class, but our professor ended up dropping the book from the reading list, saying it was too long and we wouldn’t have enough time to finish it before finals. While announcing this, however, she noted that Wives and Daughters was, in her opinion, “one of the most beautiful and masterful novels in the British tradition.” I raised my eyebrows, somewhat surprised, and decided to save my copy and return to it some day.

“Some day” turned out to be two years later, once I had graduated university, married, and moved to a new town. I read Wives and Daughters this past summer and quickly became enthralled with the little universe Gaskell had created. The novel follows the life of young Molly Gibson, who is raised by her doctor father after her mother’s premature death. Molly is intelligent and sweet and possesses an unwavering devotion to her father. She develops a friendship with the Hamley family–particularly with Mrs. Hamley, the invalid matriarch–and the Hamley’s sons, Osborne and Roger. Life seems to be happening at a pleasant clip for Molly, until her father brings home a new wife.

Dr. Gibson abruptly marries an attractive but unbearably vain and garrulous widow, Hyacinth Clare. Molly feels hurt and betrayed and, naturally, strongly dislikes her stepmother. Hyacinth might have fallen neatly into the evil-stepmother archetype were it not for the complicating influence of her daughter, Cynthia.

Molly is an interesting heroine, but her stepsister, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, is perhaps an even more interesting one. The professor who wrote the introduction to my edition of the novel noted that Cynthia Kirkpatrick was perhaps “the most complex female character” he’d ever met in a 19th-century novel. A tall order, perhaps, but she seems to fit the description. Cynthia is very beautiful and very aware of the power that her beauty gives her. She arrives to the Gibson household fresh from a French boarding school and filled with pretentions and secrets. Molly and Cynthia take a bit of time to warm up to one another, but after a few chapters, they have come to care for one another as true sisters. Cynthia, however, does not operate in a way we would expect. We expect her to be silly and flirtatious–which she sometimes is–but she surprises us with her ability to transcend her stereotype of the glamorous, desirable single girl. While mired in a romantic trap that she has created for herself, Cynthia exhibits both great lapses of judgment and bouts of the deepest insight and self-awareness. Gaskell never fully lets us make up our minds about her–and that is, perhaps, the true genius behind the character of Cynthia Kirkpatrick.

Wives and Daughters was not the most beautiful and lyrical book I read all year, but it was certainly one of the most enjoyable. Gaskell writes with brilliant humor and keen eye for the intricacies of middle-class life. Once you enter her universe, you will be quick to laugh and loath to leave. She holds a firm grasp on her readers and manages to keep them–to keep us, rather–grounded solidly in the reality she has created for us. And that’s why it’s worth reading another 19th-century English woman novelist.