The Marriage Plot
I was hooked on the premise of The Marriage Plot after hearing Eugenides discuss Jane Austen’s novels on NPR. Some of the finest works of English literature–Austen included–are structured around courtship and marriage. In earlier centuries, marriage meant everything for a woman’s social and economic future, even for her very survival. Eugenides explains:
I envy writers who came from a world where social constrictions were still normative and they could still write marriage plots. I couldn’t, being an American born in 1960. … I didn’t think it was possible to write a Jane Austen novel now, and in fact, it isn’t. But I did want to traffic in the same ideas.
For his new novel The Marriage Plot, Eugenides constructs a love triangle of 3 Brown University students, and the plot does indeed revolve around who will marry whom. Mitchell loves Madeleine, who loves Leonard, who loves Madeleine, who likes Mitchell.
I loved the concept, but Eugenides’s Marriage Plot fell flat for me. He writes beautiful prose, and fleshes out the inner lives of the two men with sympathy and realism, but Madeleine feels feels heavy and wooden. Good writing can’t make up for a lacking heroine.
The plot is propelled forward by Madeleine’s wrestling with the meaning of love, and later of marriage–and by Leonard’s mental illness. Eugenides says of his decision to make Leonard a manic-depressive:
I had the idea to have [Madeleine] be in love with a manic-depressive because at times this person was the most engaging, the most energetic, the most exciting person she’d ever met, the most intelligent — and at other times, the most depressed, the most needy, the most insufferable. And that just appealed to me as a difficulty in love greater than most, so of course, it was good fodder from the novelist.
It was good fodder for a novel, but I wish that Madeleine had seemed a little more human as she struggled through her relationship with Leonard.
(Many of you will want to know that The Marriage Plot is heavy on drugs, sex, and language. Proceed with caution, okay?)
Death Comes to Pemberley
I don’t read fan fiction, but I do love mysteries, so I decided to make an exception for the Austen-inspired Death Comes to Pemberley by British mystery writer P.D. James.
The novel is set on the grounds of Pemberley, some 5 years after the marriages of Darcy and Elizabeth, Bingley and Jane. Captain Denny is murdered in the Pemberley forest late at night, and Wickham and Lydia are with him. The rest of the book sets out to unravel what happened that night.
This story never drew me in, and no wonder: the plot revolves around Wickham, and he’s never been a compelling character. He’s not dastardly enough to be interesting, and not engaging enough to draw my sympathies. In Death Comes to Pemberley, he’s not useful as a plot device like he was in Pride and Prejudice ; here, he’s the linchpin of the plot. But Wickham can’t hold the story together.
I love Jane Austen, but the extended references to the events of Pride and Prejudice are tiresome. The first reference to other Austen characters—the Elliot family of Persuasion—was light and fun, but I groaned when James trotted out Harriet Smith and Emma Woodhouse as well. That awkward mention–like so much in Death Comes to Pemberley–was too heavy-handed for this story to bear.
Readers, do you love fanfiction, or hate it?