I recently—and quite coincidentally—read two novels that, though very different, are nearly identical in theme, treatment of said theme and the ambivalent reaction I had to each of them.
The first of this not-really-dynamic duo was Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2011 “The Marriage Plot.” Eugenides said he wrote this novel as a way of determining whether novels using the what academics call “the marriage plot” could be written in a modern day setting. Well, not quite modern day, as it’s set in 1981, which he clearly remembers a little too fondly.
Novels written with the marriage plot are those along the lines of Jane Austen’s, in which the entire point of the book is to get some girl married so all her problems can be over. That’s a gross simplification, of course. Later writers—James, Flaubert, Tolstoy, for instance—tore at the fabric of this plot, showing that a marriage can often be a prison. Today (or in 1981) with divorce common and love passe, is there a story that can be told that ends, satisfactorily, in marriage. Well Eugenides damn well decides to find out. Whether a reader goes along with him is entirely up to his patience for stupid people.
Madeleine is the girl who wants nothing more than to marry Leonard, a brilliant, though troubled student she meets in a semiotics class at Brown University. (Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, most especially in literature. I had to look it up, assuming it would matter. It didn’t, except as a way for Eugenides to show off his Brown University education, Class of ’82,) An English major, she only reads romantic classics, bristling at assigned readings that don’t have pat, happy endings. There’s Mitchell, also in that class, who pines away for Madeleine who only has eyes for Leonard. God knows why, Leonard’s completely unlikable, is bipolar and needs a bath.
Madeleine is perfectly happy to put aside her own dreams — did she really have any in the first place, one is tempted to ask — to help Leonard achieve his. But his illness makes that hard. Mitchell, who is studying religion is also apparently brilliant, but can’t get over his love for Madeleine or his anger at her choosing Leonard.
There are excruciating scenes throughout the book where the three of them twist themselves in knots as they try to understand each other and, faced with too many options, lose their way. In the end, it’s probably safe to say, and not giving too much away, that Madeleine would not like this novel.
The best thing about it is that it shows Eugenides has a sense of humor — especially in the early parts — a welcome change from his previous books. He doesn’t sustain it, though, or maybe it’s just that the characters become more pathetic as the book goes on and it feels wrong to laugh at them.
The second book, which I liked better but still had problems with is Teddy Wayne’s “Loner.” Also set at an Ivy League school (Harvard) with an overly intelligent young man (David) who falls in love with a beautiful classmate (Veronica) on first glance and does everything in his power to force a relationship.
David starts out doing the things any young student does when interested in a person: He arranges to “accidentally meet” Veronica; he gets to know her circle of friends, hoping it will expand to fit one more; offers to study with her. But Wayne slowly moves David into dangerous territory, so slowly, the reader may not notice it. He dates Veronica’s roommate (Sara) only so he can get access to their room so he can see how Veronica lives. Sara will get hurt, you slowly grow to understand. That’s when things start spinning out of control, and the book starts making you feel icky.
Despite the title, David is anything but a loner. After four long high school years of hanging around nerds and losers, he wants nothing more than to be accepted by what he considers the cool kids. The trouble is, the cool kids at Harvard are far beyond him in life experience and we know he will get hurt, too.
Now “Loner” is much funnier than “Marriage” and I laughed a lot. But then it wasn’t funny anymore and I found myself thinking Wayne had gone way too far — this simple book about a minor obsession becomes dark and disappointing. Still, I rooted equally for David to succeed and fail. In the end, he sort of does both.
Taken together, these books show how people can have advantages that 99% of the world doesn’t and the best education available, and yet be too stupid to live. It’s a waste of opportunity and it feels wasteful to spend time with these people.