Jeffrey Eugenides is used to situating himself between the sexes. He is not quite the author of The Portrait of a Lady in this regard (Elizabeth Hardwick, when asked once to name her favorite American female novelist, wittily answered, “Henry James”), but then who is? Eugenides is certainly more interested in the sexual act itself than James ever was. Like John Updike, but with significantly more emotional content, he is curious about the mechanics entailed in the joining of bodies, the physical sensations that attach to the act of love. Above all, he seeks to render the experience—whether of love or sex, or both—from within the sensibilities of his characters, male and female. In his last novel, Middlesex, he placed himself so literally between the two genders that his main character was a hermaphrodite. Now, in this new book, he distributes himself among three characters, two young men and a young woman.
We begin inside the mind of that young woman, Madeleine Hanna, on the morning of her graduation from Brown University. It is 1982, and Madeleine, who cannot decide if she wants to go to graduate school or not, has recently finished an undergraduate thesis on “the marriage plot.” Her main themes—essentially the same ones fueling Eugenides—are captured in a paragraph describing the theories put forth by her favorite professor:
In Saunders’s opinion, the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. . . . Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? . . . Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t. You had to read historical fiction. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies. . . . You had to go, literarily speaking, back in time.
Eugenides only takes us a short way back—to the period of his own youth, thirty or so years ago—but it is enough to give us a sense of déjà vu, or nostalgia, or cringing embarrassment, or whatever the memories of your youthful days are likely to bring forth. In my own case, the feeling was one of profound amusement at the accurate portrayal (it is in no way a parody, though it might seem so to anyone who wasn’t there) of the culture wars taking place in English departments at that time. There are those, such as Madeleine’s professor, who still believe in reading novels, and then there are those who have gone over completely to French-based theory, championing Derrida, Saussure, Foucault, and Barthes as the only form of “discourse” worth reading. Madeleine, as it happens, takes a stand somewhere between the two positions. She still loves Austen and Trollope, but Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, which she rereads obsessively, becomes in some ways the bible of her undergraduate years. In this respect, as in so many others, Eugenides is fair-minded and generous where he could easily have been narrowly satiric. He is able, that is, to find some merit in both perspectives (though he can be cruel—satisfyingly cruel—to the minor characters who are rigid absolutists, such as the arrogantly deconstructionist Thurston or the dim-wittedly feminist Claire).
Madeleine’s great senior-year love affair, which is in part set off and in part ruined by her immersion in Barthes, is with an attractive young man named Leonard Bankhead. She meets Leonard in her Semiotics 211 seminar, where he and she are the only two students who feel some resistance to the au courant theories of the gruesomely self-applauding professor. They first come together in a hesitant, gentle way that allows Eugenides to display some of his most sensitive prose: “Leonard’s head was way up above her, but then he bent down, in a peaceful, leaf-eater motion, and said, ‘I haven’t been feeling well.’” The early warning signs are all there—Leonard turns out to be bipolar, or manic-depressive, as we called it in those days—but neither we nor Madeleine can spot this at first; he simply seems charming, and bright, and a bit melancholic and skeptical, all of which are alluring features at that age. Madeleine falls wildly in love with him, and he seems to return her feelings, until he suddenly doesn’t, and they break off seeing each other just before graduation.
The third figure in the central trio is Mitchell Grammaticus, an interesting, smart, but physically unimposing young man who has been friends with Madeleine since their sophomore year. Their friendship ebbs and flows, largely because he is in love with her, and she occasionally preys upon this feeling (though without ever returning it) in ways that infuriate him. There is no right or wrong here; one sees and understands both sides of this unstable but enduring friendship. Mitchell turns out to be as obsessive about Madeleine as she is about Leonard, and one of his aims in life (aside from grappling with some serious religious questions, which take him on a sort of postgraduate quest to India and beyond) is to prevent her from marrying the problematic Leonard. Clearly he sees himself as better husband material for her, if only she would recognize it—and he and she are both sufficiently well drawn for us to understand why he feels this way. But we also, by the end, understand something of Leonard’s plight, or at least sympathize with it tremendously, so we can see things from his position as well. This, to me, was the most surprising aspect of the book, and in a way the most impressive in fictional terms. I would have guessed that Eugenides could persuasively become a young woman like Madeleine, but I would not have thought that the man who is essentially Mitchell Grammaticus, thirty years onward, would have had the capacity to enter his rival’s painfully tortured mind with so much depth and empathy.
To reveal who ends up marrying whom would be to give away Eugenides’s plot, and because this is in many ways an old-fashioned novel, that element of suspense does matter. It is one of the things that keeps us reading through the increasingly disparate adventures of the three main characters; it is the thread that holds them together even when they seem furthest apart. It helps that none of these main characters is at all boring. It also helps that they are surrounded by a hive of much more trivial but nonetheless entertaining characters, including not only the aforementioned Thurston and Claire, but also Mitchell’s best friend, Larry, who turns out, after being dumped by the egregious Claire, to be gay; Madeleine’s anodyne roommates, Abby and Olivia, and her annoying older sister, Alwyn; Phyllida and Alton Hanna, Madeleine’s parents, who could easily have been pilloried for their echt-WASP mannerisms but in general are not; the ambitious high-level scientists who work with Leonard at the Pilgram Lake, Massachusetts, lab where he spends the year after college; and even some of the stranger figures who populate Mitchell’s Indian journey.
And of course there is Eugenides’s prose to keep us going as well—rarely showy, sometimes a bit labored (“the doorbell in Madeleine’s fourth-floor apartment began, clamorously, insistently, to ring”), but always serviceable and often transparent. Workmanship at this level is insufficiently praised these days. It requires great respect for the reader to construct a serious plot, to populate it with real characters, and then to step back and let things take their course. In the few places where Eugenides makes a misstep (as he does, perhaps, at the very end, on the novel’s final page), he goes wrong because he is trying to show us how clever he can be. We don’t need to be told this by any good author, and we are in fact rather sick of being told it by most other novelists of his generation. Cleverness is the kind of thing one looks for in a Derrida or a Foucault. It is what we applaud such critics for, if we applaud them at all. But to allow that kind of self-referentiality to seep too heavily into the texture of a fictional work is to undermine the novel’s own special form of intelligence.
Eugenides basically understands all this. What he possesses is not only a solid mastery of his sentence-level craft, but a deep wish to tell us stories that matter about people who also matter. That is so essential a job of the novel, from Austen and James to our contemporaries and beyond, that it should be enough for us. And if the time ever comes when it is not, then perhaps we will no longer deserve to have novels.
Wendy Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review, is the author of a recent book about Shostakovich, Music for Silenced Voices, as well as seven other works of nonfiction and one novel.