I was in Austin this past weekend doing a panel for Nasty Women, but I had the first day of the festival all to myself. One of the big events I’d been dying to attend was the panel with Jeffrey Eugenides and Claire Messud. It’s a six hour drive from South Texas up to Austin, and I used the opportunity to finish listening to Fresh Complaint, a collection of stories written between 1988 to 2017. With the exception of the title story, most of the stories had been previously published in other places.
Early in the panel, Eugenides bemoaned a common description he’d been seeing in reviews of his book: it’s about depressed middle-aged men. “It’s not just about that,” he protested. “There’s a story about two older women, and there’s a story about a Pakistani teenager.”
Yeah. About that.
Home by Toni Morrison
Publisher/Year: Knopf, 2012
What it is: A novella about a traumatized Korean War veteran’s return home — both literally and figuratively — upon hearing disturbing news about his sister.
Why I read it: Toni Morrison is one of my favorite authors.
What I thought: It’s been a while since I’ve read a Morrison book, but there’s something instantly familiar about all of her writing. There are actually two stories — and “homecomings” — going on here: Frank Money’s and his sister, Cee’s. It’s a very short book that can easily be read in one sitting, but by the end, you still feel like you intimately know Frank and Cee, and understand why they make the decisions they do. There’s little flair to this book; Morrison’s writing is spare and straightforward, but it is no less powerful or lyrical. Her characterizations are spot on, and her storytelling abilities never fail to inspire me.
A taste: “There was no love from Jessie Maynard in Portland. Help, yes. But the contempt was glacial. The Reverend was devoted to the needy, apparently, but only if they were properly clothed and not a young, hale, and very tall veteran.”
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher/Year: Picador, 2009 (reprint)
What it is: Set in 1970s Michigan, a group of adolescent boys struggle to make sense of the mysterious Lisbon family. Starting with Cecilia Lisbon’s suicide attempt, the boys become obsessed with trying to figure out why each of the five Lisbon girls eventually commit suicide.
Why I read it: I love Eugenides, and this was the only novel of his that I still hadn’t read.
What I thought: I already knew what was going to happen because I saw Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation years ago when it first came out. The film is pretty faithful to the book…and I thought the film was overrated. Unfortunately, that sentiment carried over to the book as well. It’s not a bad book, but it just didn’t do much for me. Eugenides’ writing is gorgeous as usual, but I just never really latched onto the story. Since it’s told from the point of view of a bunch of boys who were witnessing the Lisbons’ downfall from afar, the reader never really finds out what went on in the Lisbon household; you’re only given the same clues the boys were given, and you’re left to piece together whatever you can. Personally, I would have preferred the book from the Lisbon girls’ point of view, even though it would have meant taking away some of their mystery.
To say that Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest novel, The Marriage Plot, has an air of pretension would probably be an understatement. It revolves around the lives of Brown University students. Pages upon pages are devoted to literary criticism, semiotics, religious theory, and biology. One of the main characters, an intelligent man battling manic depression, wallows in narcissistic self-examination. Post-graduation, the characters go off and do what the progeny of rich, white east coasters did in the late 1970s: traveled abroad.
Yet to regale The Virgin Suicides or Middlesex and act disgruntled over the subject matter of The Marriage Plot–which I’ve seen a lot of online–is disingenuous. I just read The Virgin Suicides about a month ago, so it’s fresh in my mind; every time I see these complaints online, I think, “this is how Eugenides has always been!” He’s an academic. If you have the opportunity to see him at a reading, that becomes apparent right away. Though the characters do a lot of the same soul-searching people go through at some point in life, ultimately, The Marriage Plot reflects a fairly small segment of the U.S. population. I expected as much. Did it bother me? No, not really.
The book’s title comes from a course that Madeline, one of the three main protagonists, takes in undergrad called “The Marriage Plot: Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot, and James.” The professor of the course posits:
In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for divorce later?…[M]arriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. Where could you find a marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t.