The novel begins on graduation day at Brown University with Madeleine's parents showing up to take her to breakfast. She has spent the previous night carousing with friends and is no way going to allow her parents in her apartment. What seems like a very straightforward narrative soon eclipses into a very erudite literary treatise about French theorists and theory. I must admit, not being an English major, I was and am still very confused by the terminology and the entire concept of semiotics. As the reader follows Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell through their year after graduation there are some very interesting and engaging chapters and also some very unmemorable ones that I just wanted to be over."It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead – charismatic loner and college Darwinist – suddenly turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus – who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange – resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his wife. Over the next year, as the members of the triangle graduate from college and enter the real world, they will be forced to re-evaluate everything."
Madeleine is a very spoiled, rich young woman who really doesn't know what she wants out of life. She is predictably struggling with how to survive after college in an economically challenged environment. She falls back to what was at one time a relationship with a real person and not one from one of her Victorian novels. Unfortunately, she keeps returning to that relationship and is nothing more than a doormat. Leonard knows what he wants from life, but just can't seem to get there as his manic depressive state gets in the way. Mitchell, for me, was the most likable of the three. Yes, he was reflective to the point of obsession with religion, but he seemed to have a plan and goal and was working through the obstacles to get to it, both in career and romance.
It seems to me that this novel is overwritten. Not having read anything else by Eugenides, I am not sure whether it is typical of his style or if it is unique to this novel. We read the same story in different sections of the novel, not only when being narrated by a different character. Madeleine was whiny and flat. The protracted descriptions of a mentally ill person give insight into the disease state, but at the same time places the reader in an uncomfortable position of being a secret observer to the demons. Throughout the novel it almost seemed that Mitchell was an afterthought - included to complete the triangle of the marriage plot. There is a level beyond the narrative where the author brings the themes of love vs. infatuation, reality vs. illusion, and the physical and secular vs. spiritualism to light. It's unfortunate that the reader must toil get there.
And so I am left ambivalent. At times I was engrossed, but then, at times I struggled and plodded and wanted to be done with it. I will be anxious to hear Jeffrey Eugenides speak about his book. Perhaps I should also read The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex to get a more balanced perspective on this Pulitzer Prize winning author.