June 2nd, 2012


Book 64: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Book 64: The Marriage Plot.
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides, 2011.
Genre: Period Fiction. Post-Modern. Relationships. Coming of Age. Mental Illness.
Other Details: Hardback. 406pages.

"There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel." - Anthony Trollope - quoted on the dust jacket of The Marriage Plot.

Opening on their graduation day from Brown University in 1982, Eugenides' third novel follows the lives of three students during their first year post-graduation with flash backs to their university experiences.

Madeleine Hanna is an English major writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot and the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. While she studies the motivations of the human heart two very different suitors appear on the scene. She had first met charismatic loner Leonard Bankhead during a semiotics seminar and she soon finds herself in a highly-charged relationship with him. The other bloke is Mitchell Grammaticus, an old friend whom Madeleine has placed in the Friend Zone. He is privately obsessed with the idea that he and Madeleine are destined to be together. Mitchell is engaged upon a spiritual quest that sees him reading Christian mysticism and after graduation travelling to India where he encounters the work with the dying being undertaken by Mother Teresa.

It is a familiar love triangle that can be seen in many examples of romantic fiction including Twilight: quiet idealistic young woman falls for the dark, brooding complex bloke while on the sidelines there is another bloke who is kind and supportive with a bad case of unrequited love.

While very different to Middlesex, I found this another intelligent, thought-provoking novel by Eugenides that addressed a range of issues including fashions in literary theory, the shift from the campus to the 'real world' and the impact of severe mental illness upon the individual as well as family and friends. As someone who is dealing daily with bi-polar disorder, I could certainly relate to these aspects of the narrative and felt it was approached with sensitivity especially in terms of the brain-deadening effects of medication and the seduction of the manic stage. Happily since the 1980s there have been significant advances in treatment.

From literary reviews I have read it appears that this is Eugenides' most personal novel to date drawing upon his experiences at Brown University in the early 1980s and his youthful religious questionings that included working for a time at Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying in Calcutta. It explains how he depicted the scenes at the hospice in such detail.

The Marriage Plot was read by one of my reading groups that had loved Middlesex. The consensus was that while it didn't have the same impact as that earlier novel it still held our attention and explored interesting themes. Reflecting on it, I feel that it is a novel that I'd welcome re-reading in a year or so.
Dead Dog Cat

(no subject)

Over the last couple of days, I finished reading two books.

First was Osprey Campaign #208: Petersburg 1864 – 65: The Longest Siege. I always have this feeling of dismay when I read Civil War histories; I still can't in my deepest bones believe that THIS country could have fallen so far from its ideals to have fought such a war. Same feeling with this book. Not the fault of the book; simply my prejudices at work.

Second was a book that I found surprisingly difficult to put down, The Spellman Files. It's supposed to be a mystery, and I suppose there is one in there somewhere, but what it really is, is a character study of the members of this family of PIs. It's madcap and fascinating. Set in SF. I really have to recommend it for a recreational read. I'm hunting for the first of the sequels...

22: Bran didn't have a DANG thing to do with it.

Perhaps all you need to know about The Cereal Murders comes at the start, when the heroine asks her adopted son to tell her about a classmate who's been recently murdered. He was unpopular, her son explains, and as evidence cites his behavior in their prep school English class: after viewing the Ingmar Bergman movies the teacher made them watch, the boy would insist on "talking about the [movie's] internal structure": "That kind of smart attitude can lose you some friends."

Yeah, it's bad enough that he was watching old movies in the first place, but TALKING about them. What's with THAT?

This is what I get for reading a book entitled The Cereal Murders. The plot proper begins when Colorado caterer Goldy Bear (oh, Lordy) discovers in the snow the dead body of the aforementioned prep school student; he's been strangled with one of Goldy's spare extension cords. She phones 911 and requests that her policeman boyfriend be sent to oversee the case. Later that night, she removes from the scene what seems to be the victim's personal property but doesn't bother reporting it to the police until later on. For some reason, despite owning the murder weapon, tampering with and withholding evidence, requesting preferential police treatment, discovering the body, and being the only human alive at the immediate scene, she's not considered the #1 suspect, an indication of how far you're going to be required to suspend your disbelief here.

Ridiculous name aside, Goldy was the biggest turnoff for me in this book, a tiringly self-centered and narrow-minded woman. She expresses smug disapproval of those who are (hold on while I get my list) too smart, too thin, too heavy, too rich, too short, have frosted hair, are experiencing mental distress following a divorce, or are Eastern European (???). She attends church mainly to exchange gossip and becomes irritated when the priest expresses disapproval at doing so during the service. She interrupts mourning of the dead teenager with recollections of her own past domestic abuse, which does injustice to both crimes, and she snickers at the victim for being a "nerd" while his body isn't even stiff.

For its theme, the book highlights the absurdities of trying to secure a spot at a competitive college, but Davidson handles it with an attitude at once both anti-intellectual and weirdly elitist. On one hand, a good portion of the book is a jeremiad against the supposed uselessness of formal higher education, with its heroine bemoaning how words like "totalitarianism" aren't useful in everyday conversation and how REAL jobs like catering don't require a diploma. On the other hand, Goldy conspicuously notes how she attended an Ivy League school and belabors how her sheriff sweetie is a Harvard alumnus, and she seems to spend a lot of time studying who owns a Lexus and who's stuck driving a Honda in the church parking lot; personal worth still correlates strongly with income in Goldy's eyes, and she wants you to know she's still Better Than You by the same educational metric she ostensibly rejects. I sympathize with her point that colleges often don't quite deliver on their expense and that the best learning environments, be it from an "objective" standpoint or a person-to-person fit, sometimes aren't the most expensive. Degrees and training, though, do most often make a difference, and not everyone aspires to a profession that doesn't require a bachelor's.

(Also: call me drearily pragmatic, but I think it might have been a mistake to resolve the young aspiring scientist's storyline by sending her to a liberal-arts school for an astrophysics degree. I'm not sure either that genius journalism students use "guess what?" much in their blistering, Pulitzer-worthy exposes.)

The book's gimmick is that it intersperses the proceedings with Goldy's catering recipes, which as genre gimmicks go is refreshingly engaging and interactive; I tried the Cereal Killer Cookies, and they weren't bad. I didn't mind the heroine's supporting cast (smart, amiable young son; weary, well-adjusted adopted teenager; nice-guy boyfriend), and the rich-but-isolated small Colorado mountain-town setting is distinctively appealing. There's no real mystery here, though - there're no true clues to the perp's identity, and the eleventh-hour villain could've been most anyone in the cast. Overall, I don't think I'll be returning for a second helping of this series. There's a kernel of an idea here about how kids are forced to spend too much time pretending to be someone they're not to impress recruiters and thus are left with no time to develop their own personality at a critical age, but the protagonist - and the author - are just too petty and narrow-minded for any meaningful exploration of it.
book and cup

#58 The Sleeping Beauty - Elizabeth Taylor (1953)

The Sleeping Beauty was Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth novel, published in 1953. It is set in the fictional coastal town of Seething (a name which mirrors the tumultuous emotions and jealousies of the inhabitants.) Unusually though for Elizabeth Taylor – it has a male protagonist at the centre of the narrative.

When Vinny arrives in the town, it is to comfort an old friend Isabella who has been recently widowed. Catching a glimpse of woman walking on the beach, middle aged Vinny falls in love, for the first time. Emily is the sleeping beauty of the title, living at the guest house run by her widowed sister Rose; caring for her sister’s disabled child she carries the scars both physical and mental of a car accident some years earlier. Although this is apparently Elizabeth Taylor’s most romantic novel- it is not conventionally so and could never be described as cosy (Elizabeth Taylor’s novels are many things – but never that). Vinny is not all that he seems – he is in fact that wonderfully old fashioned thing – a bit of a cad. Vinny has a wife – one that not even his mother knows exists. She, Rita a dance school teacher – whose friends believe her to be the widow of a war hero – will not divorce Vinny.  

Meanwhile, Isabella has begun to have her own expectations of Vinny – unaware of his feelings for Emily. She meets regularly with her friend Evalie Hobson, makes surreptitious bets on horses, plasters her skin with face masks hoping to hold back time, and ultimately betrays Vinny. Her son Laurence starts a relationship with Betty a nursery maid staying with her employers at Rose’s guest house.

 Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of sad, lonely middle-age in the characters of Isabella, Evalie and Rose is utterly brilliant. They are self-righteous, ageing often lonely, but viewed however with Elizabeth Taylor’s characteristically caustic humour.  They are flawed characters, not always very likeable but not wholly unsympathetic either.

 I would say that this will not be my favourite novel by Elizabeth Taylor – but it is still hugely readable, and I enjoyed it immensely. Her writing is simply lovely; I always feel I understand her characters – even if I don’t like them. Vinny redeems himself slightly at the end of this novel – his rescue of Emily makes him a sort of hero – but he too is deeply flawed. Like the last Elizabeth Taylor novel I read “A Game of Hide and Seek” the ending is slightly ambiguous – does Vinny get away with it – is in a way up to the reader to decide. I do appreciate how Elizabeth Taylor allows her readers to make these decisions themselves.


Bring Impending Ventus

Ventus, by Karl Schroeder (nook, Creative Commons)
Slow-moving, but full of good things to think about. Like an old science fiction novel from the 60s, but with more interesting women.
(104, O38)

Scenes from an Impending Marriage, by Adrian Tomine
Cute, fun. Liked the deliberate shout-outs to Peanuts.

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
As anything other than a sequel to Wolf Hall, this would've blown me away. But Wolf Hall was better. I think. Maybe it was me. Anyway, it was still very very good. Mantel's command of the language and ability to bring small moments to life were as sharp as ever.
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