Thursday, March 08, 2012

What am I reading? The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I absolutely loved Eugenides' Middlesex (seriously – go and read it if you haven't), whereas I put The Virgin Suicides aside after just a few pages (I can't remember why exactly any more, but it irritated me in some way). So it was with some trepidation that I shelled out the not-insignficant (in Kindle terms) sum of c. £8 to read The Marriage Plot. I'm a little more than halfway through, and while I'm not loving it the way I did Middlesex, it's not irritating me the way Suicides did either, so that's all to the good. I suppose naming a book The Marriage Plot is like a Chekhovian gun – I'm still waiting for the marriage. It's sort of your typical American (post)college novel – following three characters: Madeleine, aimless English Lit major (aren't they all?) who turns out to be a bit of a doormat for love; Leonard, her scientist boyfriend with issues which I won't go into here; and Mitchell, a theology student in love with Madeleine (who does that annoying girly thing of leading him on while claiming she's just seeking a Platonic ideal of a relationship*. Not that that's restricted to girls.) If anything, so far it has made me wistful for the epoch (early 80s) as depicted – a time where working on gender issues in literature was fresh and exciting (to drive the point home, Madeleine glimpses the infamous Gilbert and Gubar at a conference) and you could go travelling around the world with the romance of not planning everything ahead on the internet and encountering a seemingly endless stream of people who speak perfect English. Other than that, it's an interesting read, but I'll reserve full judgement until I've made it to the end.

*Mixing of Platonic references deliberate albeit probably clumsy

I've read quite a few other books recently as well, which I'll just sum up briefly.

  • Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, which I read in one sitting, was certainly a good read and quite compelling. I didn't personally feel that there was a great deal of depth in it, but maybe that's from not being a middle-aged man looking back over the events of my life.
  • The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann. This was a good choice for my Barcelona holiday, as it was easy to dip in and out of this collection of journalistic pieces, without needing to pay close attention. The interest level, for me, was very varied. The title story, which tries to unpick the mysterious death of a prominent Conan Doyle scholar, for example, was quite absorbing, but I could have done without other pieces such as on a one-time big-shot baseballer trying to make a comeback while marooned in the minor leagues, or a tale of political corruption in an American city which just went on too damn long.
  • The Women of the Cousins' War by Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones. Philippa Gregory's historical fiction (of which The Other Boleyn Girl is the most famous) is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me and makes for the ideal aeroplane reading. In this book, Gregory (who actually has a PhD so she knows her stuff) and two historians tell the true stories of three women involved in the Wars of the Roses - Queen Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort (mother of Henry VII) and Jacquetta, Lady Rivers (Woodville's mother). I've never got much beyond a vague idea of most of the players and events in the Wars of the Roses (go Lancaster!) and I'll probably forget it all again shortly, but this book did a good job of telling the stories of three women who are overlooked to various degrees by mainstream history, in a very accessible and readable way.
  • She-Wolves: The Women who Ruled England before Elizabeth, by Helen Castor. Sort of continuing the theme of the previous book, in that it's dealing with powerful women of England, this book focuses on Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Margaret of Anjou, and Mary Tudor. Again, an interesting and readable introduction to a subject I knew only smatterings about. I read this on my Kindle pretty much exclusively at the gym, so it took a long time and perhaps wasn't the ideal way to take it in, reading a handful of pages at a time on the treadmill, but it was nonetheless enjoyable. One interesting thing is how often parts of France I know and love pop up in passing, particularly with Eleanor of Aquitaine and Margaret of Anjou, but also with others. For example, Eleanor is buried not far from here (which I knew, I want to visit but it's fairly impossible without a car from what I gather) and Margaret of Anjou's marriage to Henry VI was arranged via the Treaty of Tours. Always fun to realise a bit more of the historical connections places in Europe have!


  1. That's a lot of money for a Kindle book! Sometimes I protest a higher than normal price by not buying the book, which probably means that it goes unnoticed by everyone but myself.

    Your comments about the early 80s made me smile - that's when I made my first trip to Europe. Almost everything was unplanned (no internet) and we encountered people who spoke impeccable English along the way. "The Marriage Plot" sounds like a good I'll just have to wait to see if the price drops.

    I've always found Eleanor of Aquitaine to be fascinating.

  2. MK - I usually judge the Kindle price on whether or not I can get the physical book shipped from the UK for cheaper. Often you can, but the price is usually a lot closer with Kindle books. I think in this case it was pretty much the same price on Kindle or book + shipping, plus I was in Barcelona so I needed a book right away :)

    I do envy you experiencing that sort of travel, although things have changed even since I first came to Europe on my own (late 2004) in terms of what you can do online, and I did very little forward planning on that occasion (I actually walked into a travel agency in NZ on a Wednesday with no previous planning and flew out to Canada that Saturday. It was fun although I'll bet a lot more expensive!)

    Yes, Eleanor of Aquitaine is definitely a character! I was amazed to learn in that book that she crossed the Pyrénées at the age of like 70 or something!!

  3. Scratch that - when she was nearly 80 amazing!

  4. You put me to shame - I am currently reading a book called 'Take a Chance on Me' [blush].

  5. Tell me it's Abba-based!


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