From Providence to Monaco

Around the World in Books I’ve been keeping myself entertained this week while putting lots of miles on the car. I was listening to a book several of my friends had recommended, in part because it takes place at my old university, right at the time we were there.

Here is my review of The Marriage Plot which gave me RI and Monaco, an E author for the alphabonkers challenge, and another from the small batch of books added to the new 1001 list. Warning: narrator bashing occurs at the end. Just skip the last paragraph if you don’t want to listen to me being snarky.

The Marriage PlotThe Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By now they had moved on to Derrida’s Of Gramatology. The Derrida went like this, “In that sense, it is the Aufhebbung of other writings, particularly of hieroglyphic script and of the Leibnizian characteristic that had been criticized previously through one and the same gesture.” In poetic moods, the Derrida went like this “What writing itself, in its nonphonetic moment, betrays, is life. It menaces at once the breath, the spirit, and history as the spirit’s relationship with itself. It is their end, their finitude, their paralysis.” Since Derrida claimed that language, by its very nature, undermined any meaning it attempted to promote, Madeline wondered how Derrida expected her to get his meaning. Maybe he didn’t. That was why he deployed so much arcane terminology, so many loop de looping clauses. That was why he said what he said in sentences it took a minute to identify the subjects of. Could “the access to pluridimensionality and to a delinearized temporality” really be a subject?

Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty handed after jogging with hand-weights. After getting out of Semiotics 211, Madeline fled to the Rockefeller Library, down to B level where the stacks exuded a vivifying smell of mold, and grabbed something, anything, The House of Mirth, Daniel Deronda, to restore herself to sanity. How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before. What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative. Madeline felt safe with a 19th century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world. Then, too, there were lots of weddings in Wharton and Austen. There were all kinds of irresistible gloomy men.

Reading The Marriage Plot was a delicious trip back to my own undergraduate years, which began at Brown, overlapping for a year there with the undergraduate careers of the novel’s protagonists. I was on familiar turf geographically, walking the streets of Providence, going to classes in familiar buildings, eating again at the “Ratty.” The rainy graduation weekend that begins the novel really happened in 1982; my friend was there for his older sister’s graduation and told me all about it later that summer, when we shared an apartment like the ones the characters lived in on the East Side near campus.

I laughed at passages like the one quoted above, as I remembered a game we used to play sometimes at parties with some unsuspecting new person in our crowd. The person is sent from the room and told we would come up with a mystery that they would have to solve by asking yes/no questions after being given three nouns related to the plot. In fact, there was no story. We picked three words, and then we said “yes” to questions ending in A-L and “no” to questions ending M-Z. The person would come back and start to puzzle out a story, eventually running into direct contradictions in our answers because of the way questions were phrased. Most people eventually figured out that it was all rigged. My friend Marianna, a classics major, argued that we needed to play this with Comparative Literature (Comp Lit) majors, as they would have kept going for hours because they assumed we had some postmodern, deconstructed something or other going on (in the 5 whole minutes we had sent them out of the room). Based on The Marriage Plot, I’d guess semiotics students could have been kept going for weeks. We didn’t know any Semiotics majors. I guess we spent too much time on B Level of the Rock, with the books that had those comforting narratives.

The Marriage Plot is, at its core, a modern love story, which explores what the convention of the Marriage Plot that formed the core of Regency Era and Victorian novels would look like now, in a world where women can have careers, own property, and get divorced. It is also a story of coming of age and self discovery, as the protagonists make the transition from the comfortable nest of collegiate life out into the much more intimidating and unpredictable wider world. They grapple with a variety of challenges: parental expectations and indifference, professional and academic successes and setbacks, relationship difficulties, mental illness, immersion in unfamiliar foreign cultures. Most importantly, they face themselves: their dreams, their illusions, their insecurities, their values and goals. Jeffrey Eugenides writes with sympathy and wit, but doesn’t let his characters off easily. And he gets off a nice critique of some stuffy corners of academia at the very same time.

One word of warning, I listened to this on audio and really didn’t like the narration much. The narrator managed to make Madeline and her friends sound shrill and whiny and her parents sound unbearably stuffy. He didn’t bother to learn to pronounce the name of Providence’s notorious former mayor, or the names of streets there, or even the word afikomen (could he really not find a Jew anywhere to ask on that one?). So I recommend the book, but would steer you away from the audio.

View all my reviews

Updated score sheet for the year:

Around the World (goal: 52 total including at least 6 in each of 6 different regions) 6
Asia/Mideast: 2 (Israel, China)
Europe: 2 (England/UK, Monaco)
Caribbean/Central America/North America: 1 (US)
South America:
Extra: 1 (Scotland)

Around the US (goal: 50 states, DC, and PR): 3 (CA, NY, RI)

1001 Books (goal 52): 4

A to Z challenge (must be completed in order 26 author last names A to Z then 26 titles A to Z–strategy is all!): 5
Authors: Auster, Beinart, Chandler, Donovan, Eugenides


About Beth Parks Aronson

I am Associate Professor of Psychology at Lamar University. Previously, I was a psychologist in private practice in Jenkintown, PA where I specialized in anxiety disorders and working with people living with chronic and life-threatening illnesses. I am a little addicted to good literature. Ok, a lot addicted.
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2 Responses to From Providence to Monaco

  1. vanbraman says:

    I was surprised, but not surprised, that this was not a Pulitzer finalist last year. You may remember reading some of my thoughts about it in the Pulitzer group.

  2. I didn’t care much for the other books I’ve read by Eugenides, but your review and other opinions I’ve read of the Marriage Plot make me think I should still give it a try.

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