Rating: 4 stars
This book was a delight. The prose fizzed with exuberance. Experiencing Madeleine’s college life, her friendships, her romantic trysts, her wrestling with what to study and why, was like experiencing university again. Madeleine the character as Proustian cake.
Madeleine is confident and secure in her privileged background. She’s a loved daughter. She’s also somehow confident in her parochialism when moving among the aesthetes and pseuds. I warmed to her. She is sarcastic and engaged at the same time as being rudderless. For the first half of the book, she breaks her own rules and changes her perception of herself. She is trying to find out who she is and what she wants. Does she sacrifice herself on the altar of her great love for Leonard? Is that love as great as she thinks it is?
I liked Leonard, too. When we first meet him, he bumbles, is insecure, knows what he wants but not necessarily how to get it. He reminded me of Joel Fleischman in Northern Exposure, somehow. The examination of his depression is not sensationalised, it is factual, realistic, sensitive. There are side effects to medication that have a physical effect and there are those that have an emotional effect. Eugenides gets them across with a simple honesty. For the first half of the book, Leonard only exists through the prism of how Madeleine sees him. In the third section, we get to know Leonard better. Eugenides’ writing about depression reminded me of The Bell Jar and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I’m guessing, based on Eugenides’ Wiki bio, that Mitchell is a loose portrait of the author. He seems the most complete character in the book. The way his point of view was constantly challenged by other people’s opinions and by the books he was reading was interesting to me as a woman. Mitchell is a very male character, but he is an intriguing one. He has his opinions and can argue his case, but he isn’t rigid. When challenged by someone who has a different opinion, and who is rigid in their belief they are right, he looks within himself to examine his own belief. I found the way Mitchell thinks very revealing, because I am often mystified by the way men think. His experiences in Greece are beautifully written. There was a quiet bliss about them, despite Mitchell being full of questions. When he moves on to India and volunteers with Mother Theresa, he seems to be distilling.
This is the second book I’ve read by Eugenides. Middlesex was outstanding. What’s clear from both the books I’ve read is that Eugenides loves people. He makes his characters warm and believable, flawed but forgiveably so. As a reader, I was on their side, interested in their lives and feelings.
He also loves language. He uses words I haven’t encountered, but not in any awkward, showing off way. He uses them because he knows what they mean and they’re the right words for what he wants to say.
I was grateful for the intelligence in the book because it wasn’t superior or preachy. References to thoughts in literature, literary criticism and semiotics were intelligent but didn’t make me feel an idiot for not having read more widely. They made me want to read more widely, because the thoughts and conversations the characters were having engaged my mind. I’ve added Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse to my wish list.
The section describing Mitchell and his friend Larry’s sojourn in Paris brought memories of my own trip to Paris. I knew the streets that Mitchell walked, but 30 years later. There is something magical about Paris. Eugenides, through Mitchell’s eyes, captures its shabby disarray, its calculated lack of care. He speaks the truth when he has Mitchell observe that
Paris was a museum displaying exactly itself.
As the child of a clinically depressed man, there was a lot in Madeleine’s response to Leonard’s depression that I recognised from how my mum coped with dad. Dad wasn’t bipolar. He had a persistent depressive disorder with mild paranoia. He was hard to live with. My mum would make deals with herself that she always broke, thinking she could reason with someone whose sense of reason was off kilter. I was interested in the way Eugenides had Leonard release Madeleine from her obligation to him. I wonder how often someone with such severe depression has the level of insight required to see past the fog the depression puts them in and recognise the pressure their illness puts their loved ones under, to the extent that they let the other people go. For my dad, the answer is never. The closest he came was saying he knew he should never have married. His need to feel supported and loved, even though our love was never pure enough for him, was stronger than his knowledge that he was hard to live with. The one time I know of that my mum told him she couldn’t continue to live with him, he threatened to kill himself if she left. My experience of someone else’s depression is that it is selfish and suffocating and works subtly and hard to make the not depressed person feel as bad about themselves for failing as the depressed person feels. I felt a lot of sympathy for Madeleine, remembering how it was for my mum.
The ending was sound, as well. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was what I’d hoped for, in broad terms.
I really loved this book. It didn’t feel life changing, but it felt more than just an entertainment. I’ll await Eugenides’ next offering with interest.