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I’ve enjoyed being swept along by the intertwined lives and romances of Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard but now it’s sadly over (and this post will therefore contain spoilers). The Marriage Plot was a very interesting book. I liked this Guardian review, which describes some of the reasons I enjoyed the novel, but disagree with some of the comments – I don’t understand why people dismiss the novel as ‘pretentious’ apparently just because it discusses literary theory and philosophical questions, or consider that it’s not about ‘real people’ because the main characters are students.

I don’t think the novel is pretentious at all, because the literary theory and other ideas are integral to the plot and characters, and aren’t just added superficially to make the novel seem more intelligent than it is (which is what my definition of ‘pretentious’ would be). I also very much feel that ideas, books and academia can’t somehow be completely separated from the rest of life, which is what some of the comments seem to suggest. The novel itself is written in quite a straightforward way, and it does actually raise some of the arguments against Derrida and similar writers, and the difficulty people experience when attempting to read their work, so I don’t know what’s pretentious about that!

After the three main characters graduate, The Marriage Plot becomes more fragmented as Mitchell’s storyline separates from that of Leonard and Madeleine. One section of the book travels with Mitchell and his friend Larry on their epic trip around Europe and India, and another follows Leonard and Madeleine as they move to Cape Cod for Leonard to take up his research fellowship studying the behaviour of yeast. After being hospitalised with manic depression while at college, Leonard is taking high doses of lithium, experiencing horrible side-effects that make sense of his decision to begin experimenting with his dose. While the effects of the dose reduction are initially positive and send him into a mildly manic state that he and Madeleine welcome, he gradually becomes more and more unstable. It is depressing to consider Leonard’s choice between his illness and a life on medication that seems to take away some of his personality and intelligence.

What also struck me about this section of the book was how unhappy Madeleine was. It is introduced quite gradually, because earlier she is portrayed as much more stable than Leonard; she had been popular at school and has never experienced depression before. However, in the last half of the book it is clear how isolated she has become, and the novel conveys a sense of her powerlessness, both in the way she tried to adapt to Leonard’s illness and seems dependent on his approval (although he is equally dependent on her at certain points), and in the way her parents attempt to control her life. I felt relieved that Madeleine’s academic ambitions gave her some hope of freedom, especially at the end of the novel.

Meanwhile Mitchell begins working at a hospital in India, while mingling with hippies and fellow travellers at the Salvation Army Guest House. I liked this plot strand because I was interested by Mitchell’s attempt to test himself and discover how well his ideals held up against reality. I can see how, as suggested in the review I linked to, lust and love are partly what’s behind Mitchell’s spiritual quest, but I don’t think that explains his explorations away. There’s also a connection with Leonard’s story, which doesn’t become clear until towards the end: the line between mysticism and madness, and the question of how far we can trust our own experiences when they seem outside the bounds of what’s considered normal.

After attending an academic conference, Madeleine phones up her father in excitement, having decided that she is going to become a Victorianist. The many references to Victorian novels in The Marriage Plot seem to suggest that the plotline of Madeleine’s life is not very different from much of the literature she studies and loves. In his wedding speech, Leonard describes Madeleine jokingly as his Victorian ‘angel in the house’, alluding to the way she cares for him during his illness. But in another way, the gender roles of Victorian archetypes are reversed, as Madeleine realises that Leonard is the ‘madwoman in the attic’ for her. Then, while on their honeymoon, Leonard buys an antique cape, which he wears on a manic nocturnal visit to the casino, swooping around like Dracula. Maybe it implies that he’s vampirically sucking the life out of Madeleine, or it could be an appropriately gothic image for someone on the brink of madness. There are other possible literary allusions which aren’t that explicit. Leonard’s breakdown while on his honeymoon reminded me of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, with the beautiful young married couple, the luxurious setting of Monaco, and the dramatic crack-up of one of the characters, but Leonard’s illness and the effects of his medication definitely aren’t in any way glamorous.

To me, these images show how the culture in which the characters live is one that’s grown out of the Victorian (or 1920s) world – it’s not completely outdated or alien – and the ‘marriage plot’ is still something that’s very important in our lives. The concepts that the characters use to think about their lives derive from what they read, and those Victorian images like the madwoman in the attic and the angel in the house are still here. But the different angles they are viewed from in the novel also reveal the differences between the nineteenth century and modern life. Which leads me to the ending of the book, which suggests what lies beyond the marriage proposal, almost a ‘way out’ of the problem of basing one’s whole existence around getting married.

I was glad that Madeleine would have the freedom to decide the direction of her own life, although I felt annoyed with Mitchell for deciding that she ‘wasn’t that special’ after she had never asked him to idealise her in the first place! (I suppose that is sometimes how we ‘get over’ people in reality, but it seemed a bit harsh to me.) His decision at the end seemed unselfish but I think was based on the more self-interested realisation that he and Madeleine weren’t actually physically attracted to eachother (which is one of the problems of idealising someone that much). Although I liked Mitchell, he never seemed to get out of his own head and realise the effects of his lovelorn misery on other people. Nevertheless the end of the book suggests that the characters are moving on to a new, exciting time in their lives (but what would happen to Leonard?). The book ends with a ‘yes’ but it’s not the reply to a marriage proposal, it’s saying yes to something else entirely.

 

I’m currently about halfway through Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel, The Marriage Plot, and am finding it fascinating and very enjoyable. Set in America in the early 80s, it is the story of three university students who become involved in a love triangle. The novel, which continues to follow the students during the year after they graduate, feels very vital and realistic, and, perhaps mainly because the writing is so good, I can strongly relate to some of the characters’ experiences.

Madeleine is an English major working on a thesis about marriage in the nineteenth century novel. Her professor argues that, in the twentieth century, marriage is no longer such a compelling plot device, that sexual liberation, divorce and women’s financial independence mean the choices someone makes in marriage don’t have the same urgency as they did in the novels of Henry James or Jane Austen. This is an appropriate background for a novel that seems (so far) to be about modern relationships. The main characters in this novel are preoccupied with two things, love and ideas, which is a wonderful mixture of subjects to read about. And the novel seems to suggest that the way the characters think about relationships can’t be separated from their intellectual interests or the ways they look at the world in general. Books (and films and music to some extent) are very important to them. They begin to find out what they think and feel about life through reading and studying, and the ideas they discover at college, during this tumultuous period of life, change them.

As I studied English at university, some of the early parts of the book which talk about Madeleine’s experiences as a student made me laugh. For example:

That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical  – because they weren’t musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories.

Or this:

Right up through her third year at college, Madeleine kept wholesomely taking courses like Victorian Fantasy: From Phantastes to The Water Babies, but by senior year she could no longer ignore the contrast between the hard-up, blinky people in her Beowulf seminar and the hipsters down the hall reading Maurice Blanchot.

I am also enjoying reading about Mitchell, a theology student, who is in love with Madeleine. The book describes how, despite not having a religious background, he becomes fascinated by the subject of mystical experience. I like the way the book takes Mitchell’s exploration of religious and philosophical questions seriously. It also creates a vivid picture of some of the other aspects of being a student, such as drunken parties, hangovers, breakdowns, impoverished attempts to travel, and the way people befriend, dislike, and try to impress each other in the very intense atmosphere of university.

One of the early scenes in The Marriage Plot describes a discussion in Madeleine’s semiotics seminar, in which one student argues that books are always about other books – they are responding to a literary tradition, trying to experiment and create something new. Madeleine thinks this comment contains some insight but is also depressing and she wishes it wasn’t true. She loves reading a traditional novel because ‘there was going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world’ and she finds comfort in discovering through literature that she is not alone. I think The Marriage Plot, from what I’ve read so far, seems to be a combination of these two aspects of literature. It is a book about books and literary questions, full of references to what Madeleine and Mitchell are reading that make me want to go out and read almost every title it mentions. In particular, I am very interested in reading A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes, a book which Madeleine becomes obsessed with because it seems to mirror her own situation, even though the book is supposed to be a deconstruction of romantic love. But as much as it is about books, The Marriage Plot also seems to be an attempt to write a traditional nineteenth-century-style novel, long and detailed, full of realistic characters created with affection, who might make you recognise your own life in its pages.

This is the first time I’ve written about a book when I haven’t finished it yet! Because I’m enjoying it so much, I felt I had to write my first impressions. I hope I like the remaining half just as much. I might report back when I’ve finished…

 

Ballet Shoes: Illustration by Ruth Gervis, found here

Which characters did you like best in your favourite childhood books? Were you more of a Jo or an Amy, a Pauline or a Petrova? I’ve recently been thinking about how readers identify with fictional characters and how important this was in my experience of reading as a child. My thoughts below are of course only based on my own experience so I hope I won’t generalise too much – I would like to hear other people’s differing opinions too.

Although sympathy with particular characters is still very much part of the pleasure of reading for me now, I think the role it played for me in childhood was quite different. Obviously I read much less critically or analytically when I was younger; I chose my favourite character in each book quite consciously and virtually lived the story through their eyes. I wonder if the importance of this experience of completely absorbed sympathy is the reason for the number of children’s books featuring a group of characters, all with very different personalities, inviting the reader to find an equivalent of himself or herself somewhere among the crowd. I’m thinking of Noel Streatfeild’s or Enid Blyton’s novels, or L.M. Montgomery’s The Story Girl and The Golden Road.

I find people’s memories of children’s books interesting because I think looking back on which character you felt for the most tells you something about your younger self. Identifying with a character reveals something about the reader’s personality and how she sees herself, but what kind of fictional alter-ego a reader finds at that age can also show something about how they would like to be in the future. And I think that’s why children’s books can sometimes be inspiring, presenting new possibilities and a future that the reader has never considered before, or simply reflecting someone’s self back to them in fiction in a new, comforting way, showing they are not alone in their experience. At other times children’s books may offer nothing to a particular reader because they can’t see anything at all with which they can sympathise.

When I read Ballet Shoes, my favourite character was Pauline, I think simply because she was quite glamorous and good at acting – I probably also identified with her as the oldest sister and supposedly the most responsible, although luckily I wasn’t in charge of earning money for my family at the age of eleven like Pauline was… I couldn’t identify much with the other sisters as I wasn’t single-minded with an all-consuming talent like Posy and I wasn’t a tomboy interested in mechanics like Petrova (although, now I look back, I really like the character of Petrova, particularly as she took a while to find any encouragement of her own interests, being something of a misfit in such a theatrical family). Anyway, I felt for Pauline through all her successes and humiliations at auditions, even though the chances of me ever going on stage myself were close to zero!

Another of Noel Streatfeild’s books, White Boots, is about two ice-skating friends, Lalla and Harriet. This presented something of a dilemma as I’d have quite liked to resemble Lalla, the talented and outgoing future star of the ice-dancing show, even though she was rather spoilt and bossy, but I knew I was really more like Harriet, quiet, serious and withdrawn. But the book shows that being Harriet isn’t all that bad, really, because as the story progresses she becomes more confident and healthier and begins to dream of a career as a figure skater. I also liked the character of Myra in Apple Bough as, although she doesn’t have an obvious talent like her musical siblings, she is a kind and empathetic person who takes care of the rest of the family. I like the way Noel Streatfeild’s books allow the reader to identify with awkward characters who have trouble fitting in, as well as sometimes showing these characters discovering talents they didn’t know about.

Little Women was another of my favourite books when I was younger. I think Jo is the character most readers like the best because of her spirit, her love of books, and the fact that Louisa May Alcott probably put most of her own personality into the character. However, I always wanted to be Meg. This strikes me as strange because now I think Meg is probably the least interesting of the sisters, and because, as a child, I was always writing stories and reading, just like Jo. Since then I’ve also seen the 1933 film, which my sister and I watched every Christmas for years, growing up, and which has a wonderful performance of Jo by Katharine Hepburn. I expect if I read the book now, my favourite character would be Jo. However, I think, looking back, that I sympathised with Meg’s desire to grow up and get married and have more security in her life. Because I wasn’t very rebellious as a child, it was hard for me to feel much like a Jo. And for the same reason, in the Famous Five books (I’m not a fan of Enid Blyton at all but I did read a vast quantity of her books as a child), I identified more with Anne than with George, which is perhaps an even more unpopular choice and has always felt like something I should be slightly ashamed to admit!

Which characters did you identify with most in the books you read as a child? Did you ever prefer a less obvious character, maybe a different choice from other readers you know? I find this idea of sympathising with the non-obvious or less immediately likeable characters interesting, as I think it shows how individual the experience of reading can be, and how much it’s affected by the reader’s own particular character and circumstances. It also suggests to me the complexity of fiction, showing that it may contain more possibilities than the author consciously knew, and that a book may inspire someone in an unexpected way.

I discovered Yiyun Li’s beautiful collection of short stories through this nice review at A Striped Armchair. I thought it sounded like the kind of book I would really enjoy, especially with the comparison to Ishiguro, and I wasn’t disappointed at all. I found this a very moving collection. Because each story has such a powerful effect, I didn’t feel I could race through them, one after another. I deliberately spaced out my reading of the stories, so that each one had time to linger in my mind. In fact, I would like to return to them, as although the writing is very easy to read, at the same time each story seems dense, full of details about each character’s life.

The stories are about life in 21st century China, although often the characters are looking back and reflecting on their lives in earlier times. There are some recurring themes: children being born in unusual circumstances, for example involving surrogacy and adoption, and marriages made for reasons other than love. The stories often bring together tradition and modernity; for example, in A Man Like Him, a young woman sets up a blog to denounce her father for ‘the immoral act of having taken a mistress’. House Fire has a similar theme, as a group of older women set up a detective agency to help women whose husbands are having affairs and end up being figures of curiosity filmed for a documentary series, as they uphold the values of another era. In one of my favourite stories, The Proprietress, a young journalist from Shanghai, a representative of modern, urban life, travels to a small town to interview Mrs Jin, who runs the general store and offers help to the women who come to visit their husbands in the nearby jail.

Sooner or later they started to talk about their men – fathers, sons, brothers, husbands – similar stories in which the women either believed in the innocence of their loved ones or were readier than the rest of the world to forgive them. Mrs Jin listened, pouring tea and handing them tissues, reminding herself what a lucky woman she was. She shed tears with them, too, and because of the hours she spent sympathising, she charged these women extra for any purchases.

I liked this story because of Mrs Jin’s moral ambiguity and because I wondered what motivated her to take some of these troubled women to live in her house and to look after them.

Many of the stories convey an uneasy feeling of time passing, often distilling many years into just a few words. Among the beautifully flowing writing, there will be a sentence that comes as a shock: ‘After that I resumed my daily visit to her flat, and I continued for the next twelve years’ or ‘It had been six years since he retired as an art teacher, nearly forty since he last painted out of free will’. Both these examples are from stories where the main character is very passive and has not really taken control of life. These stories are very poignant because they express the feeling of wasted time or unhappiness that couldn’t be easily resolved.

This is the first Chinese author I have ever read, and I did find the insights into another culture fascinating. Although the stories are set in the present and I could very much relate to some of the aspects of modern life described, they also took me into a world very different from my own and I felt that I had learned something.

 

This novel tells the story of a young man, Barnaby Gaitlin, who’s very much the black sheep of a successful family. The Gaitlins have made a fortune in business and run a charitable foundation, while Barnaby’s older brother Jeff is a model son, with a perfect family and career. Faced with the realisation that his parents disapprove of him, Barnaby has rebelled and completely dropped out of this money and status-driven existence. With an adolescence of petty crime and reform school as well as a divorce behind him, he works in a low-paid manual labour job that his parents see as beneath a member of such a renowned family. He lives in a basement, has no money and dresses like a tramp, causing his mother especially to nag him to change his ways and be more like his brother.

We soon learn that all the Gaitlin men throughout the generations have, at some time or other, encountered an ‘angel’, a woman who suddenly appeared to them for a moment and conveyed a supernatural message that changed the course of their lives. The novel opens with a chance meeting at a railway station that leads Barnaby to wonder whether he too has finally met his angel, the woman who will transform his directionless life…

This is a very funny novel that creates humour and drama out of the mundane events of one person’s life. It is written in the first person and I loved the voice of Barnaby – he is very observant and perceptive about those around him: the family he gets frustrated with, and his colleagues and clients at Rent-a-Back, the company he works for, carrying out odd-jobs and DIY for people who can’t manage it themselves. I also liked the clear and precise writing style, which, although fairly unadorned and unshowy, somehow immerses the reader immediately into Barnaby’s world. Barnaby is an engaging character. He sees himself as being pretty much a worthless person, as do certain neighbours and members of his family, but the reader can see clearly that he’s actually kind-hearted and very sympathetic to his clients, although he denies any praise with lines such as ‘None of my customers had the least inkling of my true nature’. His family see his job as pointless, without any future, but it’s clear that Barnaby makes a huge difference in the lives of the often lonely and elderly people he works for.

This novel has a large cast of characters, including Barnaby’s ex-wife and daughter, his family, colleagues and old school friends. For this reason, it seems rather meandering at times but it still kept me interested throughout. His eccentric clients and awkward family get-togethers are all conveyed wonderfully. I liked the way the book portrayed relationships developing slowly, and showed that people can be attracted to others without realising it at first. The reader can enjoy being one step ahead of Barnaby, seeing what isn’t obvious to him, and predicting what’s going to happen to him next. But A Patchwork Planet also shows how life can be complicated and relationships ambiguous, and it certainly doesn’t wrap everything up neatly. I think one of the main ideas expressed is that all our connections in life, whoever we interact with, contribute to giving life meaning, and it’s not only one central romantic relationship that has significance. It’s quite a cheering book and I think would be ideal to read curled up on a dull, rainy afternoon.

 

Today I thought I’d have a change from book reviews and talk about my second love (after reading): music. In fact, I would find it impossible to make a choice between music and books, and feel happy that I can have both in my life! Listening to music and going to gigs are some of the things I enjoy most in the world.

I am lucky enough to live in a city where live music happens quite frequently, and the bands and singers I like do sometimes tour here. However, sometimes I am forced (poor me) to go to gigs in London, as there’s a million times more choice and excitement there, and I can hear the bands who aren’t visiting any local venues. I think going to hear live music (when it’s good!) is a unique experience. Sometimes, when I’m at a gig by someone I love, the vague background feelings I often have – wishing my life was more exciting or the uneasy feeling that I should be somewhere else, doing something else (rather pathetically I often feel this, especially as I’m at a bit of a loose end at the moment…) – disappear, and I feel as if I’m doing what I should be and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. (I don’t know if there’s a specific word for this emotion but I think there should be.) I imagine that many other people who like music feel this way, and that’s what makes the atmosphere at gigs so fantastic.

I am thinking about this because on Tuesday, I went to London to see an American singer, Marissa Nadler, who I’d discovered through the recommendation of a friend I went to the gig with. She has a beautiful, ethereal voice and the songs she writes are nearly all quite melancholic. If you like sad, downbeat music, you really should check her out! (Actually at the gig she made a few comments sending up her gloomy image, which was quite funny). I think she is seen as a folk singer but her music is quite otherworldly at the same time. One of my favourite songs, Ghosts and Lovers, shows her style much better than I can describe it!  She also does a great cover of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat, and much to my happiness she sang this on Tuesday. Anyway, this gig had the kind of special atmosphere I am talking about, with everyone in the audience mesmerised by the music, and Marissa Nadler even said it had restored her confidence! This is my favourite kind of concert.

Marissa Nadler has some gothic influences in her music (she said at the concert that when she started out, she was always listening to Nick Cave) and on her first album, she has a song called Annabelle Lee, which is a setting to music of the Edgar Allan Poe poem. I really like this poem, and, just to end on a more literature-related note, I thought I’d share the song with you. I like the sense of mystery of the ‘love that was more than love’ and the idea that angels in heaven could envy lovers on earth. It’s also interesting that the poem influenced, and is partly quoted in, the beginning of the novel Lolita. It’s definitely a beautiful and haunting poem.