By Jeffrey Eugenides
Jeffrey Eugenides’ third novel is not a revelation. It is by all accounts a very fine piece of work with credible characters wrapped up in an absorbing story. I really enjoyed it. I just don’t think I’ll remember much about it this time next year.
We join Madeleine and her two potential suitors, Leonard and Mitchell, during their final days as undergraduates at Brown University in 1982. We follow the three of them through the days, weeks and months after graduation. The story is a very authentic, understated love triangle. This is not a soap opera – Eugenides sees to that: there are no inconvenient bedroom-door-opening moments. Instead, this is an intimate story of three individuals.
Their characters are filled with so many possibilities that their identities are confusing even to themselves. The complexities of all three are perfectly crafted and never once confusing to the reader. Eugenides is brilliant in this regard. He creates messy characters without relying on messy characterisation or narrative. That’s a harder trick to pull off than it sounds. Just ask William Boyd or Sebastian Faulks.
I found the marriage plot on which Eugenides pinned his characters to be as gripping as any adventure story. I felt very close to the characters for different reasons – Mitchell’s active searching, Leonard’s intensity and Madeleine’s hope that as a young person with promise, you can calculate and build the future you want. I loved following these three aspects of my own personality through these characters.
A subplot about mental illness blossomed throughout the novel and became central by the end. For the reader, this is both gratifying and moving: Eugenides portrays the subject very credibly indeed, and the way that the illness in question comes to dominate the marriage plot is so sad.
Nevertheless, there is something very quotidian about this novel. That’s what I mean when I say I think I’ll forget about it. For the time I was reading the book, I was absorbed in the deliberations of these three people. Eugenides made me think about them a great deal. But beyond the novel itself, I can’t say I care. There’s an invisible bridge between Eugenides’ characters and every other person in the world, and I can’t help feeling that Eugenides ought to have painted that bridge so I could see it. I don’t want sweeping statements about the plight of young lovers, but I feel that connections were lost.
Only the ending could make the novel memorable: it is superbly plotted, post-modern and consistent with the characters all the way.