Have you ever tried to describe something huge?
There are some places in Texas that are not flat, but where I come from it’s like the earth was too tired to raise even an inch off the ground. You could lay on your back and right above you is the whole big sky. Bluer than blue, with massive white clouds and stretching farther than you can see. It’s beautiful on sunny days and down right majestic when it storms.
Did you picture it in your head? Imagine the colors and size?
You might have gotten close but until you’ve actually seen it, laid right down on the ground and looked, you couldn’t really know. That’s what it feels like trying to talk about Eugenides’ book.
I can tell you how well written it is, how complex and genius the plot is, how the weight of the characters is almost physical. But unless you’ve read the book you just can’t grasp it. So this is me, trying to convince you to read it.
The book, set perfectly in the eighties, follows the lives of three college grads from their last bits of school through the year that follows. Madeleine, the aimless English major who loves love and Leonard. Leonard who is brilliant and loves Madeleine but is plagued by his manic depressive illness. And Mitchell, who loves Madeleine and travels the world looking for God/distractions from her.
The book covers mental illness, religion, obligation, family, and fate. There are theological and literary discussions, science conducted in labs. And it’s all somehow discussed in a way that is thought provoking without being overwhelming.
We’re able to feel how inescapable Leonard’s illness is, how helpless Madeleine is to save him. You can hear Mitchell’s despair as he flies to Europe, Asia, and back. The hope he puts in the ritual of religion. This novel does an exceptional job of asking the impossible questions while simultaneously showing unavoidable truths.
Eugenides’ work is also very self aware. It, and it’s characters, almost trapped by the cynicism they’re fighting against. Madeleine gets married (although it’s much more complicated than that) and runs into an old friend. The friend “can’t believe she got married. That is so retrograde.” The self awareness extends to the readers, so you’re aware of yourself in light of the mentioned issues as you read.
There’s a line, on the 28th page, that summed up what I felt about many of this novel’s insights.
“What Thurston was saying seemed to Madeleine both insightful and horribly wrong. It was maybe true, what he said, but it shouldn’t have been.”
Mostly I wished the bleakness of mental illness, the whole Mitchell leaving Mother Teresa’s hospital thing, and discussing literature being pointless weren’t true. But even if I wished some of Eugenides’ revelations ‘shouldn’t have been’ they were insightful. And to me, that’s quite impressive.
At the end, I was torn (as I am wont to do). From an artistic stand point I can appreciate what happened. But as a human with emotions I love neat and tidy happy endings.
But don’t take my word for any of this! Pick up the book and then form your own opinion!
At some point I’ll read Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, but for now it is farewell to Eugenides.
Artist you should listen to while reading this book:
- The 1975 (duh)
- Tears For Fears
- Blood Orange
- Rage Against The Machine