Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Eugenides! (Reviewing The Marriage Plot and Middlesex)

After reading, and loving, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot  a month or two ago, I decided to do something I rarely do, and jump right back to the same author immediately. That time, I read his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Middelsex.  But because I’ve been so insanely busy lately, I haven’t actually reviewed either one of them here. 

Lest you think they’re not worth your time, I figured I better talk about them once and for all. And since my thoughts on both have kind of become intertwined, I thought it would make sense to review them together. So here’s a quick two-fer.

First of all, the writing. It’s straightforward, and there’s nothing pretentious about his prose, but he still packs an amazing punch with his language choices. See this post for some gems from The Marriage Plot.  Or take a gander at this smattering from Middlesex :
“Dr. Philibosian smelled like an old couch, of hair oil and spilled soup, of unscheduled naps.”
“Cologne made me think of voice coaches, of maitre d’s, of old men and their unwanted embraces.”
“I was scandalized by the filth of men’s rooms, the rank smells and pig sounds, the grunting and huffing from the stalls. Urine was forever puddled on the floors. Straps of soiled toilet paper adhered to the commodes. When you entered a stall, more often than not, a plumbing emergency greeted you, a brown tide, a soup of dead frogs.”
I absolutely love his word choices, but there’s also something in the cadence and pacing of his writing that accentuates his more interesting phrases. His style is not flowery, and it doesn’t call attention to itself, but it still manages to elicit hearty guffaws and appreciative sighs as I speed through the stories.

Speaking of the stories, I won’t share plot points or spoilers here. I’ll simply say that I thought each was engrossing in its own way. The Marriage Plot  for its intellectual themes and college days search-for-self, and Middlesex  for its sprawling, multigenerational scope. Pitting one against the other, I’d call Middlesex  the better book, but if there’s one criticism I would level, it’s this: the unliklihood of a single family history encompassing the Greco-Turkish War, the infamous Great Fire of Smyrna, the founder and founding of the Nation of Islam, and the 1967 Detroit Riot. All of that backdrop, taken together in one book, smacks ever so slightly of Forrest Gump. But I loved it. Just like I loved The Marriage Plot.  The reason, in a word, is research.

I should state here that I probably spent more time poring over my family’s gilt-edged World Book Encyclopedias than any other set of books growing up. I am, still today, a Wikipedia fiend. So if you’re anything like me, you’ll love Eugenides. Reading one of his novels is a bit like taking a series of small correspondence courses. Pick up Middlesex  and you’ll learn about all the historical events I listed above, plus silk farming, the Greek-American immigrant experience, the business of bootlegging, and the intersex condition known as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, which lies at the center of the story. Same goes for The Marriage Plot,  only there you’ll be introduced to semiotics and deconstruction in literature, manic depression, yeast genetics, Christian mysticism and so much more.

Not only does Eugenides provide fascinating insights into all of these things, but he carries it off with a masterful storytelling ability that keeps plot paramount, yet leaves no doubt as to the novels’ broader themes. Sadly, he is on the nine-year plan (releasing novels in 1993, 2002, and 2011), which means we may not get to see another one until 2020. Until then I’ll have to savor The Virgin Suicides-  or reread one of his others. They’re that good.


  1. I read this book the summer after I graduated from college. It encapsulates life leaving a bubble better then anything I've ever read. It's a small story, but clicks along at a top notch pace. They are people everyone knows, and that's the beauty of it.

  2. As I read this I thought of how Eugenides must have so enjoyed writing it. You can just tell he had fun with it. Underlying all the twists and turns and tragedies there is humor and an ironic smile. I highly recommend this book.