One day during college, I ran into two friends who’d just emerged from the campus bookstore, giddy over the new copies of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex they had clutched to their chests. Their enthusiasm was impressive, but pales in comparison to the fiasco my friend and I participated in a few weeks ago in advance of Mr. Eugenides reading at the Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene. My friend showed up at the bookstore the day before the reading and purchased three copies of the book. Each copy came with a little tag that read “group 1.” At the reading the next night, those brandishing books purchased at Greenlight, with the group 1 tag, would have the privilege of being first in line to have their books signed. Hardcore already, right? Well–the reading was at 7:30pm and was standing-room only. My friend showed up at 6pm, I did at 6:20. We positioned ourselves near the podium and kept getting scootched up until finally, when Mr. Eugenides took the mic, my face was about 12 inches from his. We were uncomfortably close to the man, and had been standing for hours, and were feeling awkward. Where does one look when in such close proximity to the reader? He was also wearing an almost identical version of the outfit he is wearing in the much-discussed yet still inexplicable Times Square billboard promoting his novel:
Oh boy, that didn’t help matters. But, we were indeed at the front of the line to get our books signed. And what did we do? We got them signed and bolted. No meaningful conversation. No “I’m a writer and you’ve inspired me!” No “You can make it out to…” It was a crazy amount of build-up for basically zero pay-off.
Until, of course, I read the book. I really liked it. The Marriage Plot has a lot of what one wants in a novel, or at least a lot of what I want in one: subtle but smart action, emotional development, struggle, tragedy, comedy, love. It revolves around three young adults just pre- and post- graduation from Brown. These are smart, interested and interesting kids many of whose problems are born from and cultivated by their studies: the 19th C novel, semiotics, biology, philosophy, religion. I went to a college where students were apt to take their new-found knowledge way too seriously (There was one guy, freshly introduced to Marx, who burst into my room while I was talking on the phone, screaming “Do you even know who made that phone? You are alienated from the means of production!” There were the kids who could talk about nothing but Foucault when they were high. There was the guy who paced and sweated over German politics during lunch).
There are a lot of “first world problems” going on in this book, but the characters were so round, so real, that I cared about them and their issues. Lots of people caution against writing about college students precisely because their problems, so huge to them, are nothing most older people care about. But here, not so. I felt invested in the love triangle at the heart of the book. As Madeleine studies the Marriage Plot in the 19th century novel, she, as many heroines before her, is caught in a push and pull between two men. There are letters written and letters lost, there is foreign travel, disillusionment, tragic mental illness. There are family interventions, once-grand homes and windswept landscapes. There are shades of Jane Austen and Jonathan Franzen all at once. And just when Eugenides needs to tweak the formula, he does. To this end, he employs some winks and nods, some meta-touches, but, being in on the joke, I enjoyed them.
Mr. Eugenides uses verbs to their full potential. He always gets the right one, the best one for the job; he calls verbs into duty in ways that made me stop and gasp. “A ficus tree endured in the corner” (63). What else do you need to know about the person whose ficus this is? Basically nothing. That verb says it all. His prose is so precise–not clinical, but considered and yet still natural–that it exposes a lot of other writing out there as lazy.
Not that the novel needed more, but I would have read more. I don’t usually wish for sequels, but I’d love to know what these characters are doing ten years post-graduation, twenty-years. Maybe next time I go see Jeffrey Eugenides read, I’ll mention that. But, probably I’ll just anxiously avert my eyes and run.