Synopses & Reviews
It's the early 1980s--the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.
As Madeleine tries to understand why "it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France," real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead--charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy--suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old "friend" Mitchell Grammaticus--who's been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange--resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.
Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology Laboratory on Cape Cod, but can't escape the secret responsible for Leonard's seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.
Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.
In Eugenides' first novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex (2002), English major and devotee of classic literature Madeleine Hanna is a senior at Reagan-era Brown University. Only when curiosity gets the best of her does she belly up to Semiotics 211, a bastion of postmodern liberalism, and meet handsome, brilliant, mysterious Leonard Bankhead. Completing a triangle is Madeleine's friend Mitchell, a clear-eyed religious-studies student who believes himself her true intended. Eugenides' drama unfolds over the next year or so. His characteristically deliberate, researched realization of place and personality serve him well, and he strikes perfectly tuned chords by referring to works ranging from Barthes' Lovers' Discourse to Bemelmans' Madeline books for children. The remarkably
Eugenides's first novel since 2002's Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex so impressively, ambitiously breaks the mold of its predecessor that it calls for the founding of a new prize to recognize its success both as a novel--and as a Jeffrey Eugenides novel. Importantly but unobtrusively set in the early 1980s, this is the tale of Madeleine Hanna, recent Brown University English grad, and her admirer Mitchell Grammaticus, who opts out of Divinity School to walk the earth as an ersatz pilgrim. Madeleine is equally caught up, both with the postmodern vogue (Derrida, Barthes)--conflicting with her love of James, Austen, and Salinger--and with the brilliant Leonard Bankhead, whom she met in semiotics class and whose fits of manic depression jeopardize his suitability as a marriage prospect. Meanwhile, Mitchell winds up in Calcutta working with Mother Theresa's volunteers, still dreaming of Madeleine. In capturing the heady spirit of youthful intellect on the verge, Eugenides revives the coming-of-age novel for a new generation The book's fidelity to its young heroes and to a superb supporting cast of enigmatic professors, feminist theorists, neo-Victorians, and concerned mothers, and all of their evolving investment in ideas and ideals is such that the central argument of the book is also its solution: the old stories may be best after all, but there are always new ways to complicate them---Publisher's Weekly
"A stunning novel--erudite, compassionate and penetrating in its analysis of love relationships. Eugenides focuses primarily on three characters, who all graduate from Brown in 1982. One of the pieces of this triangle is Madeleine Hanna, who finds herself somewhat embarrassed to have emerged from a "normal" household in New Jersey (though we later find out the normality of her upbringing is only relative). She becomes enamored with Leonard, a brilliant but moody student, in their Semiotics course, one of the texts being, ironically, Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse, which Madeleine finds disturbingly problematic in helping her figure out her own love relationship. We discover that Leonard had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder during his first year at Brown, and his struggle with mood swings throughout the novel is both titanic and tender. The third major player is Mitchell, a Religious Studies major who is also attracted to Madeleine but whose reticence she finds both disturbing and incomprehensible. On graduation day, Leonard has a breakdown and is hospitalized in a mental-health ward, and Madeleine shows her commitment by skipping the festivities and seeking him out. After graduation, Leonard and Madeleine live together when Leonard gets an internship at a biology lab on Cape Cod, and the spring after graduation they marry, when Leonard is able to get his mood swings under temporary control. Meanwhile Mitchell, who takes his major seriously, travels to India seeking a path--and briefly finds one when he volunteers to work with the dying in Calcutta. But Mitchell's road to self-discovery eventually returns him to the States--and opens another opportunity for love that complicates Madeleine's life. Dazzling work--Eugenides continues to show that he is one of the finest of contemporary novelists." --Kirkus (starred review)
About the Author
Author of the Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002.