The best way to sum up my feelings about The Marriage Plot is: it's complicated. I didn't hate reading it, I didn't feel like I was wasting my time, and yet I found parts of it profoundly insidious. The Marriage Plot feels so contrary to Eugenides' usual thematic conclusions that it made me wonder, then, if I had misread Eugenides all along?
Two books could not be more dissimilar on the surface than The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. Where one thrives on mystery and makes a feast on brevity, the other paints every detail with maximalist aplomb. But one thing ties them together. At their cores, they tell the stories of people who are sexually repressed due to the most extraordinary of circumstances. Both make a strong case that our families are responsible for who we are, and often in the worst possible ways.
The Marriage Plot, too, centers on the sexually repressed. But in this case, they are separated from their desires by the most ordinary of circumstances. I can't decide whether to be angry with Eugenides for bringing to life many characters I left behind in college, or to be impressed by his singularly detailed account of this set of despicable characters.
The most compelling passages in the novel center around Leonard, a bipolar scientist who cannot seem to come to terms with his disease (in many ways, his love for Maddy seems to directly prevent him from taking reasonable action against it).
Leonard, it should be noted, is not David Foster Wallace, he is many people, the algamation of all whom I studiously avoided (avoiding people is easy when you're doing a double major, you're always dancing between two disconnected social groups). But unlike many tales of self-destruction, Leonard's is riveting. Whenever he's experiencing a manic episode, Eugenides' writing also takes on a new urgency. We are voyeurs of a train wreck, and we can't look away.
As for Mitchell, can a character be more revolting? He's introduced to us as a lovelorn wimp, and afterwards, we see him wimp his way through sexism, racism, Orientalism and general douchebaggery. There is an untold physics property that assholes attract assholes, and each of his scenes become more tiresome as the assholes become more terrible.
Eugenides has said that Mitchell's experiences abroad are based on his own, and perhaps that's why he seems so infatuated with Mitchell's journey. But he's such a weak character to start off with, that each of his small epiphanies seem almost petty.
I'd say one of Eugenides' greatest strengths in the past was his ability to allow a bit of grace even to the most horrible characters. But with Mitchell, either he can't be bothered, or doesn't want to allow him that grace. Or these are the perils of "writing what you know," instead of letting imagination guide the work.
But it is with Madeleine that Eugenides really loses the plot (the marriage plot, if you will). We are made to relate to her from page one, and to Eugenides' credit, I did root for her until the end. I wanted nothing more than for her to break the shackles she'd placed herself in, even though she was continually offered outs and refused to take them.
Though she's the strongest character in the novel by any traditional definition, she's seems the most subservient to outside forces. She's suffers no illness preventing her actualization, no crippling indecision, no emotional vacuum, yet she surrenders to events. She makes no proactive decision of any kind, and she seems unable to function without male validation. If her shackles weren't so particulary described, it would be difficult to care about her fate (and that's dangerous, considering she's the main character).
As always, Eugenides writes beautifully, but he's lost his grasp on what once made his work so compelling: the darkness, the atypical discussions of gender, the opposing forces of societal inertia and human agency. But I suppose everyone's allowed an unsuccessful novel. It's just a shame that we'll probably have to wait another decade for his next.