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On my bedside table: The Marriage Plot

(Part 1 of On My Bedside Table's The Best of 2011 edition)

First of all, an apology is very much in order. This was supposed to have been posted more than a week ago, but a lot of things got in the way, mostly acads and thesis, partly other personal stuff. I'm now thinking of not doing this list in succession as I fear that I may not be able to do it as religiously as I would want to, but without doubt, I will write about them all in the course of the next few weeks. But let's not go into all that anymore. Without further ado, the first book that made significant impact on my life in 2011..

This was one of those rare books that I read about a few weeks before its release, eagerly anticipated through some preview excerpts, and immediately rushed out to get the moment I heard it arrived on our shores. Yep, it was that kind of book. "The Marriage Plot" was actually the first Eugenides book that I have read, and while a lot of people say his other works are by far so much better, I find this a very fitting welcome to his works, given the situation in which I read it.

Probably the major reason why I was so thrilled about this? The lead character, Madeleine Hanna, was an English major at Brown University in the mid-1980's who was in the middle of writing her thesis on Victorian era novels. Of course, all that spelled out a big, fat "IS THIS ME?" as I first read the blurbs. (Note that this is just the first "IS THIS ME?" comment I had uttered among the many in the course of reading this book.) There aren't many novels about female English majors who are passionate about their course, you know. It got me very curious and, to my delight, hooked.

Judging by just the first line, and even the first page, alone - "To start with, look at all the books." - I already had a feeling this was going to be one of those novels I would not be putting down until I had read it completely. And yes, that was exactly what happened. It began with a description of the paperbacks and hardbounds that cluttered her bookshelf - from Austen to Barthes. How quickly my heart palpitated! It was like looking at my own shelf, or at least a shelf that I have always dreamed of. ("IS THIS ME?" number 2)

Madeleine and her obsession with books is not the main topic of this novel, however, it plays a big part. The title, "The Marriage Plot" (which can be off-putting for some, because it does lend a chick-lit-esque sound to it) is a reference to the recurring theme in Victorian novels and consequently almost all great love stories: women finding the men they will marry. This was mentioned first in Madeleine's Semiotics class - which she enjoyed, by the way ("IS THIS ME!?" number 3) - by one of her professors, who suggests the strong influence of this narrative on the framework of novels and literature in general. A novel discussing the Novel - it's kind of meta in a way, which makes it all the more interesting. (Which is why I will italicize the word Novel to refer to the novel in general and its place in literature, to differentiate it from the novel as in this book.)

Madeleine's grappling with literary criticism and structuralism serves as a backdrop to her own personal struggles regarding her past, present, and future, ("IS IT MEEEE!?" number 4) all somewhat intersecting through two important points: the great love of her life/turbulent bad boy and genius, Leonard, and the best-friend-forever-longing/sensitive religious studies major, Mitchell. The juxtaposition of these three characters was done so eloquently for me - their characters were fleshed out through a consciousness that very clearly echoed their state of minds and respective fields. While Madeleine viewed life through novels and literary devices, Mitchell did so with such mystification and curiosity, and Leonard through biological decadence.

There is still so much to the plot than just a love triangle and an English major. But it would take too much of the fun out if I laid it all on the table. A lot of people have been saying that this is not Eugenides best work, but I believe they are missing the point when they say that the characters are too inert or lack clarity. It is precisely the ambiguity and the haziness that this book is questioning, both regarding the art of the Novel and real life - without the comfort of the societal dictates that the idea of marriage, or anything else considered "secure," brings. How much are our dreams and motivations dependent on the changing face of society? How much does our future change once the setup of normal social structures evolve? Do the risks we take chase off worries or congeal them? By analyzing the evolution of the Novel, he also brings into light the evolution of society, and in turn, the fruition of our psyche, especially as we are thrust outside the comforting walls of the academe.

The book may feel a bit alienating to someone who isn't familiar with Barthes or Bronte or Wharton, but anyone who has ever questioned the promise of the future that lay ahead after college would definitely find familiarity in this one. It helped that it came to me in a time where I find myself in somewhat the same place as Madeleine. I too am faced with the rest of my life ahead of me - but what would become of me? How would the choices I make define my future? The idea of graduation somewhat introduces the feeling of adulthood, of invincibility, of the desire to make decisions only my way. But it also makes one realize how much of the future one is putting at stake even in the simplest choices like what thesis topic to pursue, or by choosing who to love and who to leave behind.

"The Marriage Plot" could not have come at a better time in my life. That five-minute brisk walk to Fully Booked Katipunan to secure myself a copy was most definitely worth it. I haven't enjoyed a book this much in a long time; and I have never been so appreciative of being an English major (and taking all those comparative literature classes) until this.

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