Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Eugenides delivers old school novel with The Marriage Plot

Book 121: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

There's an element of old school to Jeffrey Eugenides long-awaited third novel, The Marriage Plot.

The plot is familiar -- Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard and Leonard, well, we're not sure about Leonard.

To say why we're unsure about Leonard or other aspects of the plot would serve to undermine a reader's enjoyment of this novel. We've waited nine years for this book, so what's the harm is waiting a little longer to let its story unfold.

I can say this much -- when they first meet Mitchell, Madeleine and Leonard are all students at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Before it ends, Mitchell is traversing the world in search of spiritual enlightment. Madeleine and Leonard are setting up housekeeping, although that doesn't go as expected.

What separates The Marriage Plot from other novels with a similar plot is, of course, the book's author Jeffrey Eugenides.

The characters are finely drawn.  They are, at turns likeable and unlikeable; never so unbelievably good or irrdeemably bad as to be caricatures. Instead, they emerge as real people, someone we've known.

That's one of Eugenides' gifts as a writer, to bring characters to life. 

Another gift is that he is so closely observant of human nature.  The book is filled finely drawn passages that are beautiful -- not because of the language, although that's there -- but because those passages ring so true.

And there is a slyness to Eugenides' observation, a passing comment on life today that evokes empathy rather than mockery, understanding rather than contempt.

It's a wholly satisfying novel with an ending that is exactly right. The Marriage Plot was worth the wait.

Book 120: Death in the City of Light by David King

David King's Death in the City of Light was promoted as a non-fiction book akin to Erik Larson's The Devil in White City.

Superficially, the books are similar. The Devil in White City in the story of a serial killer in Chicago in 1983 when the World's Fair was attracting visitors by the thousands.

Death in the City of Light is the story of a serial killer in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II.

That's where the similarities end.  Larson's novelistic account is far and away the superior book.

King's account of Dr. Marcel Petiot never takes off.  All the ingredients are there, but the author isn't able to gin up any suspense.

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