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.

End of 2011 Reading Survey

Click for source.

Best book I read in 2011: Can’t tell you yet. Will be revealed when I do my Top 10 Books I Read in 2011 countdown in a few weeks…

Most disappointing book I read in 2011? The worst book I read was easily Night Fall, but “disappointing” implies that I was expecting it to be good, which doesn’t apply to De Mille (I knew it was going to be garbage). The most disappointing book I read in 2011 was either The Surrendered, by Chang-rae Lee, or The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht. I had such high expectations for both of them. The Surrendered ended up being strangely dull, with a string of totally useless deaths, and The Tiger’s Wife was neither compelling nor whole. Both had bright moments, but neither were excellent.

Most surprising book of 2011? What the Living Do, poems by Marie Howe. Outrageously beautiful and heartbreaking. Also The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, which was upsetting and shocking and mind-bending. But great.

Book I recommended to people most in 2011? Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer’s narrative of the history of memory and how he went on to become the U.S. Memory Champion after a year of training. Our minds are more powerful than we think.

Best series I discovered in 2011? Dog training books by Patricia McConnell? Probably? Does that count?

Favorite new authors I discovered in 2011? Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Marie Howe.

Most thrilling, un-put-down-able book in 2011? Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson.

Book I most anticipated in 2011? Maybe The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides? But I still haven’t read it yet. I’m in position no. 1 out of 113 holds at the library, so I’m getting there! Finally.

Favorite cover of a book you read in 2011?

Here’s a few I liked:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell
The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht.
The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Most memorable character in 2011? Ruth from Housekeeping or Patty Berglund from Freedom.

Book that had the greatest impact on me in 2011? Half the Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

Book I can’t believe I waited until 2011 to finally read? The Divine Comedy (Dante) or Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh).

Book I read in 2011 that I’d be most likely to re-read in 2012? Housekeeping, or the poems of Marie Howe and Maxine Kumin.

Survey courtesy of Literary Musings.

How about you? Any memorable books that fit into your year of reading survey?

Monday Snax

General rule: If I don’t have any photos from the weekend, it means that we had a very peaceful, uneventful one, which, in this case, was true. Except for the mice infestation, which is something I am not brave enough to discuss right now.


Formerly Known As. A thoughtful and great article by a Christian man on why he decided to take his wife’s name when they married. (The Curator)

Kyoko Hamada: Letter to Fukushima. A poignant photo essay and journal of a photographer’s journey back to Fukushima. As the media frenzy dies down, the residents of Fukushima still carry on their extremely difficult lives in a barren town. (The New Yorker)

Veiled. Unbelievable Italian sculptures of veiled women. I remember my mother talking about the incredible beauty of these in an art book when I was young. Since then, I’ve always been mesmerized by them. (Even Cleveland)

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Write The Marriage Plot. Jeffrey Eugenides reflects on writing his long-awaited second third (edit: Thanks, Jonathan) novel, which appears this month, nearly nine years after Middlesex. (The Millions)

Ten Types of Writer’s Block (and How to Overcome Them). A practical list for stuck writers. Eugenides himself might have appreciated this. (io9)

Flick Chicks. Mindy Kaling reflects on the absurd and limited number of women that are permitted to appear in romantic comedies. My favorite tropes: “The Klutz” and “The Forty-Two-Year-Old Mother of the Thirty-Year-Old Male Lead.” (The New Yorker)

All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed. Now this is truly sad. (The Atlantic)

Alyson Fox. Fox shoots a series of very different women, all wearing the same shade of Revlon lipstick. (Where the Lovely Things Are)

Tom Boy. A serious shoot for serious women. I like it. (Wolf Eyebrows)

Gun Safety Class at an Indiana School, 1956. Their faces in that first frame! This is so classic BOY. (Retronaut)

Suspended Greenhouse Lamp. Want! Although I get this feeling that the plants would start to singe over time… (Unruly Things)

Ask an Orthodox Christian. Orthodox Christianity is also incredibly fascinating to me, and it seems that way for all of the people who asked questions here, because they all sound like they want to convert. Interesting answers, though! (Rachel Held Evans)

It’s Nearly Halloween. Yet another reason why I have always deeply disliked Halloween. (Gemma Correll)