Despite all my expectations, the novel is a disappointment. If I’d hoped for a novel to make sense of that time of life, I’d have to look elsewhere. Sure the recession of the early ‘80’s is mentioned, but Madeleine is insulated from experiencing it, because her family is rich. On top of that she is beautiful and sane and well, rather boring. Where are the drugs, the clubs, the shock of AIDS?
So I don’t recognize the setting and can’t relate to this character. The other two main characters, Leonard and Matthew, narrate alternate chapters, but they also do not gain my sympathy. Leonard discovers he is bipolar (manic-depressive in the language of 1982) and Matthew goes on a religious quest that doesn’t even include the fun of the New Agers. Early on, I realized that I didn’t care what happened to the characters and wondered if finishing the book was worth my time.
With my expectations foiled, I continued to read with a new question. How do I evaluate this book? Basically there is no plot beyond the girl gets boy, boy dumps her, girl gets another boy, he dumps her and she concentrates on an academic career. In other words, nothing happens in this book. So maybe the traditional qualities of plot, character and setting don’t apply to a post-modernist novel. What else is there?
Ultimately I read this book as a novel of ideas. There is plenty in the novel for a student to analyze and discuss in a classroom setting. I can imagine the assigned questions: Define Kierkegaardian and how it relates to this book. Discuss the polarities of science and religion as they are portrayed in this book. Compare Madeleine to a Jane Austen character like Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice or Emma. What is the difference between a Modernist novel and a Post-Modernist one?
While there is a myriad of ideas possible, none are developed in this novel. Philosophy is mentioned, courses in semiotics are described, the polarity between science and religion is set up, but none seem integral to the book. One stated theme: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about” from François de La Rochefoucauld could be interesting. However these characters are incapable of love.
There is one redeeming section, where Eugenides shows off his best writing. This occurs when Eugenides describes the sex between Madeleine and Leonard. Fantasies and how they get played out is fun to read about, but here something daring and slightly dangerous comes alive on the page. However just as the characters never speak about what happened, the novel never returns to this thread.
Aside from this fantasy section, the great beauty of the language kept me reading, for a while. Then I started to skim the mind-numbing details. These details do not move the plot forward, or contribute to character development. Maybe in a post-modern existential world, these things don’t matter, but they still do to this reader.
In the end, Eugenides seemed to write himself into a corner and then had to use an awkward spiritual revelation, one of those heavy-handed authorial tricks, to bring the book to a conclusion. It’s as if he had a contract with his publishers to write a novel of a certain length and he’d reached the quota.
Both of the male characters love Madeleine enough to leave her. This is a strange idea to sit with. The suggestion is that she’s supposed to do something more important than marriage. This is a great plan! But, in all the previous pages, there was no evidence that she had it in her to do anything. Between daddy’s money and help from Leonard to get her article published and having Matthew to fall back on, she showed no sign of any kind of originality or other strength. If Matthew didn’t have his spiritual revelation and pull out of the relationship, Madeleine might very well have married him, with the usual boring results.
The novel ends with Madeleine stating “yes.” This echoes the ending of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a great Modernist novel. Both Molly Bloom’s “yes” and Madeleine’s “yes” are affirmations of life. But both of these female characters came out of male minds. Fortunately there are many other books to read and to be written.