Eugenides's updated Austen

By SHARON STEEL  |  October 12, 2011

"A representative image of Leonard's freshman year would be of a guy lifting his head from an act of cunnilingus long enough to take a bong hit and give a correct answer in class," Eugenides writes. Madeleine, like so many self-styled smart, cool 22-year-old girls, is determined not to lose herself in a destructive relationship, but, like so many before her, becomes obsessed with fixing the man by loving him.

Meanwhile, Mitchell believes to his core that Madeleine is meant to be with him, and sets out to India after graduation, to find God and himself in the process. "Maybe that's what your tiny handwriting has been doing all your life," he observes in a letter to Madeleine, begging her not to marry Leonard, "trying to keep your crazy wishes from exploding your life."

Eugenides's ability to capture the stop-start crackle of both actual relationships and almost-relationships (which are sometimes more painful than real ones) provides one of the most brilliant narrative layers here. One feels, while reading The Marriage Plot, as if the characters are wandering through a perpetual, incurable hangover of emotions. Nearly every sentence is suffused with explosive passion, and they are piled on top of one another like blazing tributes to Austen's best. "And it was during this period that Madeleine understood how the lover's discourse was of an extreme solitude," Eugenides writes. "The solitude was extreme because it wasn't physical. It was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, the most solitary of places."

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Each of Austen's comedies of manners were as much about things not happening as they were about her characters' lives slowly being changed by circumstances, drawing-room conversations, and hours of introspection. Before all the elaborate new media that currently distracts us and also further connects us to the people we love or desperately want to love, we had handwritten letters, we had each other, and we had the lonely, brilliant limitations of our own hearts and minds to contend with. As far as love is concerned, the '80s might as well have been Regency England.

Or, as Eugenides describes Mitchell: "His dreaminess, his swooning — his intelligent stupidity — were responsible for everything that was idiotic about him, for his fantasy of marrying Madeleine and for the self-renunciations that hedged against the fantasy's not coming true." Eugenides makes it possible to feel as if this is what the world is still like, not only through a deep and abiding affection for his irresistible characters, but because he recognizes how extraordinary it actually is to be young, stuck, and convinced that love is supposed to work out the way it does in 19th-cenutry English novels.
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