I know a lot of people either didn’t like this or felt it was underwhelming. I also think the more years we move away from Middlesex, the more we won’t talk about it (a book I love, but imagine won’t hold up years down the line).
In this novel, we find ourselves at Brown in 1982 on the eve of graduation. Madeleine is hungover, expecting her parents, and regretting “something” she did last night, even if it wasn’t technically sex. At breakfast she and her parent see her friend Mitchell, a religious studies major they all know, and ask him to join them for breakfast, even though, as he reminds Madeleine, they are not speaking.
The novel moves forward from this moment both moving in time toward the next year or so in the future, while working backward to fill in backstory and gaps. We learn that Madeleine is an English major waiting to here from Yale graduate school. She’s been working on a thesis about the “Marriage Plot” in 19th century novels, and especially whether or not those conventions still work without the clear social and legal necessities of the heroines in those novels (think about the optimistic possibilities for Austen protagonists, but also the tragic consequences for Isabel Archer or Dorothea Brooke, as well as the dangers and traps of divorce in novels like The Age of Innocence or Anna Karenina). If you were guessing that Jeffrey Eugenides is testing Madeleine’s theories with his own novel, well, you got it. This does create some funny disconnect in the novel because that idea here (Jamesian in its execution) is so obvious that it might well rankle the experiences scholarly reader (who will get all the smart guy allusions), but it’s also fascinating to watch a social novel explore an issue, while also telling a compelling story and create rich characters.
I like the novel obviously, and I had fun with it. It’s people with some characters that feel purposely amalgamated from possible real people — Leonard is kind of supposed to be David Foster Wallace, right?