The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

The back cover of my ARC copy of The Marriage Plot says that Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex not only won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, it has sold more than 3 million copies. His first novel, The Virgin Suicides, is also highly-regarded, so we can assume it had impressive sales as well. Given that, I think it is a safe assumption that millions of readers have been eagerly awaiting his third novel.

I have to confess that I am not one of them — while I own copies of both previous works, I haven’t got to them yet. When I noticed that The Marriage Plot was being released this fall, I figured I would start my Eugenides voyage with the new novel and then decide whether to explore the previous two.

I have confessed my fondness for “school” novels — you can find references to a number of my favorites in my review of Tobias Wolff’s Old School. The “college” novel with older but still young characters holds equal appeal — Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was a fun read and I may be the only person besides George W. Bush who actually liked Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons (and that may be the only thing that the former President and I have in common).

So the description of The Marriage Plot had appeal. It is set in the early 1980s and the central characters are about to graduate from Rhode Island’s Brown University. The most important of these is Madeleine, the daughter of the president of a New Jersey liberal arts college and an apple who has fallen not far from the tree, as the novel’s opening makes clear:

To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-sized but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for “Artistic”, or “Passionate”, thinking you could live with “Sensitive”, secretly fearing “Narcissistic” and “Domestic”, but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel differently depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: “Incurably Romantic”.

That’s a long quote, but you can measure your potential response to Eugenides’ novel from that opening paragraph. If it strikes you as claptrap, you won’t like the book. As for me, I was hooked — I too read those authors as a student. In fact, as a high school student, the first argument that I ever had with my mother over my reading came when she stole my library copy of John Updike’s Couples for a parental assessment and angrily demanded to know why I was reading pornography.

Eugenides wastes little time in underlining that Incurable Romantic conclusion. We meet Madeleine as she is awakening on graduation day with a massive hangover — and facing breakfast with her parents before the grad ceremony.

One of the nice things about being twenty-two, or about being Madeleine Hanna, was that three weeks of romantic anguish, followed by a night of epic drinking, didn’t do much visible damage. Except for a puffiness around her eyes, Madeleine looked like the same pretty, dark-haired person as usual. The symmetries of her face — the straight nose, the Katherine Hepburn-ish cheekbones and jawline — were almost mathematical in their precision. Only the slight furrow in her brow gave evidence of the slightly anxious person that Madeleine felt herself, intrinsically, to be, the formerly gawky seventh-grader taller than the boys, always hunching in school photos, the awkward girl who was still there, deep inside, ready to leap out at any moment and ruin things.

The cause of that anguish is the second major character, Leonard Bankhead, who until three weeks ago was Madeleine’s boyfriend. He is brilliant and very successful with women so it was a bit a triumph for her that the two had planned to spend the summer co-habiting at the prestigious Cape Cod biology laboratory where Leonard has a research fellowship. Madeleine is expecting to be accepted into one of the Ivy League schools for graduate work (her advisor has submitted her thesis on the marriage plot for publication) and looked forward to the Cape Cod summer as a perfect break. Alas, Leonard is manic depressive and has been self-treating himself by reducing his medication, which produced a predictable breakdown that led to their break-up. Madeline is still hoping for a reconciliation, incurable romantic that she is.

And finally there is nerdish, bookish Mitchell Grammaticus, a student of Christian mysticism and a “friend” of Madeleine’s whom she dangerously flirts with when she is bored. When he once took that flirtation seriously and made a pass (the first he had attempted with anyone in his life) she got angry and the two haven’t spoken in months. Despite that, he is obsessed with her in his quiet way — and takes comfort in the fact that in Jane Austen novels (part of Madeleine’s speciality) the female heroines don’t recognize who is their perfect match until late in the novel. He is very hopeful that that fictional precedent will prove to be the case in this real-life instance. The early 1980s featured its own recession, making employment options for religious mysticism grads slim, and Mitchell plans to head for Europe and India for an American version of a “gap year”, hoping his absence will cause Madeleine to come to her senses and realize he is the one for her.

For the first half of this novel, Eugenides does a great job of developing these stories, not just in bringing to life the three characters, but also the parents, fellow students and professors and advisors around them — the very particular and strange world of the university and its inhabitants comes into focus.

Alas, for this reader at least, the author loses his way when graduation is over and the three head off. Leonard and Madeleine do reconcile, although not very successfully — their summer stay on Cape Cod is an emotional roller-coaster, resulting in a marriage that quickly shows why incurable romantics should not marry manic depressives. As for Mitchell, the high point of his story is a three-week stay as a volunteer at one of Mother Teresa’s hospices in Calcutta. This action allows the author to develop some widely varied set pieces in places like Paris, Monte Carlo, Greece and Calcutta — unfortunately, none of those pieces adds much depth to the characters whom he has developed so well in the first half of the book. The second half wasn’t bad, it simply did not realize the potential that the first half showed.

In the final analysis, I would place The Marriage Plot in the same rank as Tartt’s and Wolfe’s college novels — highly entertaining reads with some very perceptive observations on aspects of the “college” life. That makes for very good escapism, but doesn’t deliver on the promise of the opening paragraph with its reference to all those great authors. It would be unfair to say that Eugenides is setting himself up as comparable to Wharton, James and Austen but having introduced the names (and borrowed the concept from them that produces the title of the novel) I would have liked to see at least more of an attempt to approach their brilliance. Despite that, I will go back to his first two books — based on this book, I’d say comparisons with Updike and Wolfe are entirely in order, even if ones with Wharton and James are not.

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43 Responses to “The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Thanks for this Kevin. I’ve had this novel on the Watch List and while I think I’ll read it down the line, I won’t rush to buy it. It has some appeal, but the weaknesses you mentioned echo–almost exactly–a friend’s opinion.

    Looked at the Amazon reviews of the Charlotte Simmons book–quite a mixed bag.

    BTW have you seen case Histories on DVD yet?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I would not characterize it as a must-read, but neither would I say give it a miss. It illustrates a kind of book that I find it very difficult to describe and review: ones where I really like the first half and then find the latter half falling flat by comparison. I don’t like to be down on those kind of books, but neither do I want to mislead people into thinking that I don’t have reservations — and then I start wondering if perhaps I have been more negative than I should have. Did the latter part disappoint me because I was expecting too much? Or maybe expecting the wrong kind of thing? Sometimes it takes a few months before I decide what the right opinion is, so I may check back later with a comment on how the book has stood the test of time. It did make this year’s New York Times top 100 list, I see.

    I’ve looked at Case Histories but haven’t bought it — we are working are way through A Touch of Frost right now and also just got the P.D. James Adam Dalgleish collection, so we are in good shape for inventory with Brit crime (and also want to re-visit Prime Suspect).

  3. Buried In Print Says:

    “School” stories are amongst my favourite sorts of novels too, so I’ve just been reminded that I’ve yet to get to Old School. ::nudges it up the TBR again::

    Though I haven’t read Eugenides’ two earlier works either, I had intended to for so long that I was happy to attend a talk last month, which definitely secured my interest. My notes are here, if you haven’t had your fill of MarriagePlotChatter.

    As I do intend to read it, I just scanned your response and have saved it for later, but I did notice your uncertainty as to whether the later segments about Mitchell’s journey advanced the narrative and recalled what JE had said about the challenges of writing that part, so you might find that of interest.

    Its bookishness alone will ensure that I enjoy it well enough, I think; I find that has a particular and enduring charm.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BIP: It was pretty obvious that parts of The Marriage Plot reflected his own student experience, but I’ll admit I chose to disregard that. I confess to being more interested in how fiction stands as fiction, rather than getting involved in trying to figure out what parts the author is basing on his own experience (that’s why I’m not very interested in listening to authors — although I certainly do not mean that as a criticism of those who do find value in it. Just different tastes and approaches). Certainly your report on his presentation is consistent with my impression of the book. I think if I had been his editor, I would have suggested more fiction, less personal experience in the Mitchell journey section — it was the part that I felt added very little to the overall book. I was quite appreciating Mitchell as a character but found the Calcutta experience more a distraction than anything else.

    • Buried In Print Says:

      I found it quite interesting that he remarked upon the difficulty of meshing what had been his personal experience with what he perceived as being Mitchell’s experiences; I wondered whether he had spotted the difficulty while he was in the process of writing it, or whether he was responding to editorial suggestions, or whether he was simply aware that there has been chatter about this now that the book is the hands/minds of readers (I don’t know if it’s a common complaint/observation). So often talk of the writing process in a public event like this is restricted to what “works” in a book, so I was really intrigued by the fact that he raised the subject. I’m almost looking forward more to reading that part more than the rest, just out of curiosity.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BIP: An additional note, since Eugenides did say at the presentation you were at that he is completing a volume of short stories. In my view, Mitchell’s Calcutta experience would have made a better short story than it does as a section of this novel.

  6. anokatony Says:

    I liked your review, although you reached a much different conclusion about ‘The Marriage Plot’ than I did.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: Sorry — I’d forgotten about your review (which is here ) when I wrote mine. I do think your thoughts were are least in my subconscious mind when I quoted the entire first para and warned potential readers that if they find that to be claptrap they should probably avoid the book. I can understand why some would find the three central characters both annoying and empty — I didn’t, although my patience was tested in the latter half.

    Incidentally, since I note in comments on your post a discussion about the potential long wait for Eugenides next book, if you check BuriedInPrint’s post you will see that he promised a Toronto audience there will be a short story collection out within two years. From the set pieces in this book, I’d say he has the potential to be an effective short story writer.

  8. leroyhunter Says:

    I read The Virgin Suicides when it came out, and thought it very good. But his subsequent books have not piqued my interest.

    With this one I think I quite early on read a piece about how the whole book is based upon real people and situations (Ie Franzen and Foster Wallace) and that turned me right off. Funny, as I’m normally in the “listen to the author / make the links to life” camp.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I suspect if I had known about the “real people” speculation before getting the book, I wouldn’t have read it because I am averse to the “listen/link” camp. As it was, I was offered an Advance Reading Copy from Random House a few months ago before the marketing started and my first description of the book came from the publisher’s blurb on the back cover — it turned out to be a pretty fair summary without giving anything away and made no mention of the real people angle. I generally avoid reading author interviews or other hype when I think I have already heard or read enough (as was the case here) so I wasn’t aware of those antecedents (if they are in fact there). For what it is worth, if they are I don’t see them as relevant even now having finished the book. As I was reading it, I did make some mental comparisons with Franzen’s Freedom but they were based more on similarities of aspects of setting and narrative.

    If you check BuriedInPrint’s link to her post on the session she attended with Eugenides he denied the DFW model — the explanation BIP outlines him giving about the novel being a reflection of his own college and post-college experiences rings quite true with me.

    I’m not sure that would or should be enough to change your decision not to read the novel. The reason I cited Tartt and Wolfe is that I think this book shares with theirs a quite good social perception and a decent plot — but it is still more escapism than something that provokes serious introspection.

  10. Wandering Coyote Says:

    I loved Middlesex so much, but have yet to read The Virgin Suicides. I was really looking forward to The Marriage Plot after liking Middlesex so much, but found myself very disappointed in it. My review is here:

    http://coyotewandering.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/book-review-the-marriage-plot/

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Wandering Coyote: I don’t think our impressions are that far apart, although I did like the characters and their development more than you did (and don’t have Middlesex as a comparison). Thanks for the link — it does give people a chance to see another take on the novel.

  12. leroyhunter Says:

    That’s an interesting recap that Buried in Print provides: aside from the DFW clarifications, the thing that struck me most was him saying how he’d never now be as “cavalier” in the way he wrote The Virgin Suicides, given he’s older and a father to a teen girl.

    I think what put me off here was absorbing so much about the book before having had a chance to read it itself. If you’ve read the text in a fairly “clean” fashion (as you describe your own experience Kevin) then I think the addendums and authorial musings can add depth and new perspective.

    I would say it’s possible I’ll read Eugenides in future, as the praise for the quality of his writing always impresses me.

  13. savidgereads Says:

    I really liked the start of Middlesex, which was chosen for a book group I was in, yet I never finished it. This wasn’t the fault of the author as I was in the process of relocating from one end of the country to the other. That said, I didn’t rush to pick it up and finish it once I was relocated. I will at some point because I was so keen to read it.

    This book has been so, so hyped to death here in the UK it is untrue, book shops with windows filled with nothing else, and actually this has put me off reading it all the more. I did see him interviewed at the Manchester Literature Festival and he came across really well yet I still wasn’t left with a hankering to read the book. It sounds like from your review this is one I can go without a good while longer.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy, Simon: This novel seems to have been more hyped in the U.K. than in North America, although the fact that it was prize season in Canada may have meant it was dimmer here than in the U.S. Eugenides certainly has been at the major festivals (although not Calgary’s) but I have not been aware of a slew of media publicity. As I said earlier, it would have put me off, probably to the point of not reading the book. I am one of those who feel that book and author are separate things — if the book doesn’t stand on its own without the author explaining elsewhere what he was doing, I find it severely wanting. And the last thing that I want to do is to waste time reading a book where my main objective is trying to capture all the references that the author has said (elsewhere) that are captured there.

    Having said all that, your comments (and the book) are bringing to mind the Franzen/Freedom experience — a decent, but hardly great book, by a known author gets overtaken by the marketing around it.

  15. kimbofo Says:

    I read Middlesex years ago and loved it. I always associate him with Franzen, probably because I read The Corrections at around the same time (circa 2003). But as much as I loved both books, I’ve not rushed out and read the two new ones, simply because the hype has put me off. I’m sure I will get around to them eventually.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Kim: I make the same association with Franzen off the experience of this book — they address similar themes in about the same era in similar ways. And I held off reading Freedom for several months because I thought my negative reaction to the hype would influence my reaction to the book — so I guess they get similar amounts of hype.

  16. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    I have been thinking of reading this but am not so sure now – I think the last section would annoy me – you’re review was really useful as always and has perhaps saved me a lot of time on a book I would ultimately find unsatisfying.

    Like you I enjoy novels about college life and ceratainly, Donna Tartt got it just right. Another one I enjoyed which you is in the same genre (if there is such a thing) is Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons – a quite intricate novel about a group of Oxford students and their subsequent histories.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: Now the English college novel is another kettle of fish, because the colleges have been around for so much longer and produced so many more authors. Thanks for the pointer to Alderman — I will look her up.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    A query from KfC: I noticed a review of David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy on the Guardian site and it seems to fit my interest in college novels and has apparently just be reissued as a collection. Have any visitors here an opinion on it?

    • Tom Cunliffe Says:

      Oh yes, I forgot about those – I read them all some years ago. Very good stuff indeed. Funny too. And all nicely available in one volume now (from Vintage) – 950 pages of sheer entertainment – ask for it for Christmas

  19. Liz Says:

    I just finished The Marriage Plot because my personal book club will be discussing it in December. I’m not sure what to make of this book. I, too, loved A Secret History and Old School, but came to this book largely due to having loved Middlesex. Although I think The Marriage Plot is worth reading, it definitely does not live up to (this reader’s) expectations.

    The best part of the story (and the saddest) is Leonard, and I think the author does a great job of portraying both the character and his disease, as well as the disease’s effects upon those around him.

    Being one who tends to sit in the “New Criticism” camp, I am loathe to have to know Eugenides’ bio in order to understand the relevance of Mitchell. I just considered him as a character and wondered if his quest for god was some sort of mania or madness on his part, as a parallel to Leonard’s story.

    And the frame of the marriage plot with Victorian novels…yes, Madeleine can rewrite her story, but this part felt rather forced to me, or not fleshed out enough maybe…

    Anyway, these are just initial thoughts. If the women in my book club have anything to say that is enlightening, I will let you know.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Liz: I can’t disagree with any of your observations. The book certainly has its moments, particularly in the first half, but ended up being disappointing, for me at least.

  21. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I printed out this review (actually I’ve printed out a fair few reviews, a result of little time at a computer and much traveling). I jotted notes in the margin as I went along. Like you I must confess I’ve not been eagerly awaiting his latest, and having read this I doubt I’ll read the book.

    I didn’t find that quote claptrap, but nor did it make me want to read on. I found I didn’t care about the character, which in many books would be irrelevant but not I think to one like this. The second quote felt to me that perhaps it was explaining a little too much, not leaving enough space for me as reader.

    Mitchell Grammaticus? Seriously? I find it odd that all the other names are so naturalistic, and that one so obviously thematic. Perhaps it’s a faux Victorian thing, since after all Mr Gradgrind could cohabit with far more prosaically named characters without any trouble.

    At the end of your review I wrote in the margin “a good mainstream novel, how dull” which while harsh (perhaps even snobbish, if that word exists) summed up my thoughts at that point. Moments later I saw you describe it as not “a must-read, but neither would I say give it a miss” which with my reading backlog really doesn’t fire me up. The comment that it’s “more escapism than something that provokes serious introspection” reinforces that. A good mainstream novel but not one that does anything particularly exciting.

    Your comments on the Franzen match my impressions of that too. Again, a faint whiff of dullness is hard to avoid. Good books, but not great, and very long for mere entertainment. That said, clearly many readers will (do) love it and will greatly disagree with me. That’s no bad thing. It would be dull if everyone liked the same books.

    So, not me. A great review though Kevin and frankly these days I’m grateful for reviews that put me off books. My TBR pile already threatens to grow so large as to potentially destabilise the Earth’s orbit.

    On an unrelated note, like you I tend not to read around the book (the author’s life, who characters are based on and so on). Nothing wrong with those who want to know more and find it adds to the work, but for me the work should stand on its own and if it can’t it has a fundamental problem.

  22. sharkell Says:

    I read Middlesex years ago and absolutely loved it. Last year I read The Virgin Suicides, which I had been eagerly looking forward to reading and didn’t like it. I wasn’t a fan of A Secret History either. I have been wondering whether to give JE another go and I think I might based on your review. Thanks.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: “A good mainstream novel” is a perfectly fair description — and certainly it will have more appeal to some than it did for me (or you).

    Sharkell: Since this is my first Eugenides, I can’t make comparisons with his other two — I will be interested in hearing how this stacks up from those who have.

  24. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Thanks Kevin. Given my presently rather constrained reading I’ll definitely pass then. I do think that it will find many readers and I hope they enjoy it, but it’s not the sort of thing that I’m currently looking to add to my own reading pile.

    On a semi-related note I did rather enjoy A Secret History. Tartt’s sophomore novel (if I use that term correctly) didn’t wholly succeed as I recall, is that correct?

  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I very much liked A Secret History, did not like The Little Friend at all.

  26. Emma Says:

    Well, we have two things in common: I also like school books and I really enjoyed I, Charlotte Simmons. And also The Secret History.

    This is the second review I read of this book, it sounds like an enjoyable read but not beyond. I’ve never read Eugenides, he’s not so well-known here.

    Two things strike me:
    – no foreign literature on Madeleine’s book shelf. How can she explore the marriage plot without reading French books? But then, it’s so typical of American readers, isn’t it? Not so eager to read in translation.
    – like Max, Mitchell Grammaticus ?!

  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Emma: I would say this novel is no more flawed than Charlotte Simmons was — my review and the comments have tended to dwell on the weaknesses rather than the strengths.

    I hadn’t thought about the lack of translated work in her modest library. I’m not sure whether that is meant as a reflection of her naivite (likely), a bit of Eugendies satire on America (less likely) or an indication of his own zenophobia (not likely). Perhaps it is best interpreted as a combination of the first two.

    For plot reasons, Eugenides needs for Mitchell to be a Greek-American. Perhaps he went a bit over the top with the name.

  28. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Well, apart from anything else Grammaticus isn’t a Greek name. It’s Latin (though Wikipedia tells me there was a fifth Century Greek scholar of that name, which may be the reference, it would have been a Latinised early Medieval name though of course, not Greek).

    It is also though a bit like naming a character Aethelred or Cunwald, it sort of sticks out in a modern context.

  29. Emma Says:

    Max, I agree. It made me think of Britannicus. Difficult to be more Roman than him.

  30. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max, Emma: I guess all that I can add is that his last name is just one of the many strange things about Mitchell. I gather from the author’s publicity tour that he used the character to reflect on some personal experiences (e.g. the Indian episode) — for the most part, I found them more distracting than anything else.

  31. David Says:

    I finished this a couple of days ago. Like you Kevin, it was my first Eugenides novel (I’m also a fan of ‘school’ novels too). Unlike you however I thought the novel improved vastly after graduation – I’m afraid a lot of the literary references and scholarly stuff was wasted on me. Plus I read it straight after Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding” and shortly after Alexander Maksik’s “You Deserve Nothing” – both better school/college novels in my opinion. The strongest part of the novel for me by far was Leonard’s depression and how that affected his relationship with Madeleine which I thought was very well handled and quite painful to read. I also quite enjoyed Mitchell’s time in India though, having initially been sympathetic to his character I found my allegiances shifting to Leonard as the book progressed.
    Anyway, I enjoyed the book and surprised myself by how quickly I whipped through it – I’ve had a copy of “Middlesex” for years and I reckon its time I finally read it.

    Incidentally, Mitchell’s surname didn’t seem odd at all to me. Perhaps because there is a BBC News correspondent called Damian Grammaticas so it is a fairly familiar name.

  32. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: Thanks for your thoughts and particularly the endorsement of The Act of Fielding — I have been wondering about it and will add it to my list. I’m also happy to see that the parts of this that did not land well with me did work for you.

  33. leroyhunter Says:

    I’ve been likewise a little sceptical of the hype The Art of Fielding is attracting, but a recent strong personal recommendation made me reconsider. I’m on a buying go-slow though so I don’t know if it’ll displace higher priorities in the new year.

    I’ve also seen reference to Maksik – unfortunately the most recent being: http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/node/126739

    • Lee Monks Says:

      Leroyhunter, The Art Of Fielding is truly great fun, superbly done. It’s no masterpiece but it’s top-drawer entertainment. Well, thus far (am at about the 300-page mark).

  34. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Thanks for the link — I can’t say I’m surprised by a couple of the “overhypes” (Friedman and the Jobs bio) but don’t have much opinion on the fiction ones. The descriptions I have read of the Maksik have mainly convinced me that I just would not be interested — David is the first positive opinion I have seen from a reader whom I respect.

  35. David Says:

    I find it a bit odd to see the Maksik on an “over-hyped” books list. It was published to very little fanfare at all in the UK and only seems to be getting attention due to the revelation about the author (of which I knew nothing when I read the book). Most reviews point out that its influences are a tad too obvious, and they are, but for a debut novel I thought it was very good – engaging, affecting and elegantly written. The aspect of the book I enjoyed most wasn’t the affair with the student (though that is very well handled – unsurprisingly as it turns out) but the lessons in the classroom with the “inspirational” teacher – they’re nothing new certainly, but are a joy to read and this is where I preferred it to the classroom sections in Eugenides’ novel.

    ‘The Art of Fielding’ on the other hand certainly has been hyped. But, unlike with Franzen’s books for example (which I’m not that fond of) I feel like the hype here is justified. As a debut novel I found it exceptional and I reckon Harbach might turn out to be a very good author indeed. I’m not a sports fan and I know nothing about baseball, but it was the characters and the story that made the novel for me and carried me along, reading into the small hours. I’m already looking forward to what he does next, in the same way I look forward to new books by Richard Russo or Ethan Canin.

  36. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: I am guessing that the “over-hyped” label is mainly a New York phenomenon — the piece was a Post column and they are pretty “local” in their outlook. I also wonder if the hype in question comes mainly inside the industry itself (with comparisons to the attention given to the Harbach). All of which is only idle speculation from someone a few thousand miles away. Thanks again for bring the two books into the discussion — I certainly think there are valid comparisons to be made with Eugenides, who undoubtedly is getting more hype thann both.

  37. leroyhunter Says:

    David, I didn’t intend to cast any aspersion on your estimate of the Maksik book – I haven’t read it so I can’t judge either way. I do read a couple of US book blogs and it’s one of a few titles (Harbach’s being another) that have been talked up pretty relentlessly this year. Kevin is right to point out that is often a phenomenon that shows the internal-looking nature of much publishing discourse. And I think it’s as much that that has lead to the selection on the Post piece I linked (albeit it’s clear the chap actually disliked the book as well).

  38. Mrs.B. Says:

    I rank The Secret History as one of my all-time favorite novels but then I read it when I was 22 and so I was about the same age as the protagonists. However, it has stood many rereads over the years and I still cherish it. I haven’t read Wolfe’s novel so can’t comment on that. The Marriage Plot was promising and had passages of sheer beautiful writing but ultimately it became so tedious and dare I say it ‘boring’ in the second half.

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