Saturday, October 11, 2014

The novels of Jeffrey Eugenides

I've just completed reading the three published novels of Jeffrey Eugenides: The Marriage Plot, The Virgin Suicides, and Middlesex. What follows are my (very) brief reviews of each one.


Eugenides obviously subscribes to Hemingway's "write what you know" school of thought. Eugenides is a late Baby Boomer (born in 1960). He is of Greek descent, and he was raised in Detroit. 

All of his novels rely heavily on one or more of these elements. 

The Marriage Plot (2011)

This is the one that I liked the best, and I liked it quite a lot. (Conversely, this seems to be the Eugenides novel that is least well liked by his fans, based on its reviews. Oh, well.)

The plot of The Marriage Plot revolves around a love triangle among three young adults who graduate from Brown University in the early Reagan years. The three main characters are Madeline, Leonard, and Mitchell.

Madeline is an attractive young woman from an upper-class background. She falls for Leonard, who is something of a rogue--but a sympathetic rogue. Leonard comes from unfortunate circumstances, and he suffers from chronic depression. But Madeline loves him anyway.

Mitchell is a Greek-American young man on a religious quest. Oh, and he also loves Madeline! But Madeline, of course, has put him in the "friend zone".

Although the time period of the early 1980s is now dated; practically every reader will see a part of himself or herself in one of these characters, who are richly drawn and driven by complex motivations. No spoilers here; but the book doesn't have a contrived or storybook ending. The ending is what I would call "realistic".

Once again, I really enjoyed The Marriage Plot

Click graphic to view The Marriage Plot on

The Virgin Suicides (1993)

Set in suburban Detroit in 1972, this is the richly atmospheric tale of the Lisbon sisters, five beautiful young women who kill themselves over the course of about a year. The narration is first-person plural. The story is told from the perspective of the narrator's middle age years, and he is looking back on the obsession that he and his small group of friends once had for the enigmatic and tragic Lisbon quintet. Drawing on memory and subsequently gathered evidence, the narrator pieces together past events.

This is easily Eugenides' best known book, largely owing to the 1999 movie based on the novel. (Note: I haven't seen the movie yet; though from what I've read, the film is reasonably faithful to the book.)

I suppose I would give this one three out of five stars. The Virgin Suicides was a haunting story, but the plot dragged throughout much of the middle. Eugenides does vividly recreate the world of suburban Detroit in the early 1970s; and he writes with remarkable insight and clarity about the fog of the adolescent crush. 

But there were passages in which I wanted him to move things along a bit more succinctly and efficiently. Get on with it, already, I often thought. Tell me what happened next.

Click graphic to view The Virgin Suicides on

Middlesex (2002)

This is a novel about an intersex individual who is born to--you guessed it--a Greek-American family in suburban Detroit. 

I just couldn't get into this one. Yes, I know that Middlesex is the Eugenides novel that has received the most critical acclaim. (The book won a Pulitzer Prize, no less.) But I simply didn't find either the main character or his/her situation particularly interesting. 

This was a novel in which the subplots--which involved wartime escapes from the Middle East and Depression-era gangsters--were far more interesting than the main story. 

Click graphic to view Middlesex on


Eugenides is a writer that I look forward to reading more of--even though his results have been (for me at least) uneven thus far. 

If I were Eugenides' agent or editor, I would encourage him to focus more on conventional story lines (which he does very well in The Marriage Plot), and to be less "experimental". 

But I have no doubt that many Eugenides fans will disagree with my assessment. 

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