Omnivore’s Oeuvre: The Novels of Jeffrey Eugenides

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One of my mini-projects this summer has been reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ complete novels. The author’s Greek-American heritage and native Detroit inspire much of his subject matter, and romantic and familial relationships are central to his work. But Eugenides’ seemingly slim output belies the breadth of ambition displayed in his three novels. The first novel is poetic and poignant; the second, intricate, verging on epic; and the third, engaging and quick-paced. All are compelling reads.

1. The Virgin Suicides (1993) is my favorite. If you’ve seen Sofia Coppola’s film you will notice that the movie’s dreamlike quality matches the texture and tone of Eugenides’ novel. The first-person plural narration tells the story of the Lisbon sisters through the lens of a group of neighborhood boys infatuated with them. Seen from afar, the Lisbon girls—Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia—take on a mysterious quality that starts as fleshly beauty and moves into something ethereal. As the sisters grapple with Cecilia’s suicide and grow increasingly isolated, a sense of longing from the the neighborhood boys amplifies the heartbreaking way the girls fade from view.

Despite the subject matter, I would not say this novel is dominated by stark tragedy. Eugenides weaves a lyrical and evocative narrative that luxuriates in the details of the boys’ imaginations and the material clues of the girls’ lives. Though I am one to react against the stereotypical “male gaze,” Eugenides’ gorgeous prose and the mix of innocence, curiousity, and adolescent wonder in the narrative voice creates a complicated and finely-woven tale.

The male gaze is not un-self-conscious. At one point, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon reluctantly allow Therese, Mary, Bonnie, and Lux to go to homecoming on a group date that includes some of the neighborhood boys. For one night the girls become real, and the narrator acknowledges the gap between who the Lisbon girls appear to be from afar, and who they prove to be on closer inspection. “Who had known they talked so much, held so many opinions, jabbed at the world’s sights with so many fingers?” the narrator asks. “Between our sporadic glimpses of the girls they had been continuously living, developing in ways we couldn’t imagine, reading every book on the bowdlerized family bookshelf.” With a wave of the wand, Eugenides acknowledges the multifaceted and unseen personalities of the Lisbon girls. Though they are developed characters within the novel, they are often imaginary, sifted and glimpsed through the observations and fantasies of their neighbors. Eugenides reveals beauty and flaws in the ways the boys romanticize the Lisbon sisters from afar.

2. Middlesex (2002) is a rewarding read, though it was slow to draw me in. Eugenides provides a detailed history of the Stephanides family, tracing the origins of the chromosome mutation that results in the narrator’s intersex status. The story begins in a small town in Greece, where war and a (strangely romantic) incident of incest leads a brother and sister to reestablish themselves in the New World. The Stephanides family takes root in Detroit and continually, though sometimes unwillingly, adapts to the city’s changing landscape. Though Eugenides interweaves the family history with glimpses of the narrator’s present circumstances, we arrive at the story of the narrator, Calliope Stephanides, only after learning of the preceding generations. “Callie” (later “Cal”) is declared a girl at birth, but adolescence gradually, and then suddenly, reveals a new identity. The protagonist journeys to doctors’ offices and across the country, finally arriving at a new sense of self.

Cal remakes himself as an urbane diplomat, but admires and identifies with the great Greek storytellers. Eugenides overtly channels classical subject matter, including the Greek myth of Hermaphroditus. Callie’s uncle subscribes to a “Great Books” series, and the young narrator’s interest is piqued: “Even back then the Great Books were working on me,” Cal says, “silently urging me to pursue the most futile human dream of all, the dream of writing a book worthy of joining their number, a one hundred and sixteenth Great Book with another long Greek name on the cover: Stephanides.” What we have, in Middlesex, is the very book Callie dreams of. Though I enjoyed the other two novels more than this one, Callie/Cal’s story is highly compelling, and I respect Eugenides’ ambitious aims in writing not only his version of a Greek epic, but a narrative of intersex identity.

3. The Marriage Plot (2011) is the kind of book I wanted to keep reading past bed time. Beautiful and bookish Madeleine Hanna is the central character, onto whom friend Mitchell Grammaticus projects his fantasies of the perfect partner. Meanwhile, Madeleine is swept up into an intense relationship with the mentally unbalanced but brilliant Leonard Bankhead. Though Madeleine is often presented in terms of Mitchell’s obsession and Leonard’s manipulations, she is no Lisbon girl. Despite the promise shown by the male characters—Mitchell as a theology scholar and Leonard as a scientist—it’s Madeleine who begins to forge a clear path after college graduation. The novel chronicles her romantic entanglement with Leonard, Leonard’s battle with his own brain chemistry, and Mitchell’s international quest for spiritual and scholarly insight. But amidst the emotional wreckage of post-grad life, Madeleine alone finds out who she wants to be.

Literature provides the backdrop, context, and compass for the heroine. Eugenides introduces her, in the first sentence of the first chapter, with a simple directive: “To start with, look at all the books.” He goes on to describe the “mid-size but still portable library” inside her dorm room—Henry James, Dickens, Austen, Eliot, H.D., Levertov, Colette, Updike’s Couples. It’s clear these works are integral to Madeleine’s burgeoning identity. “The Marriage Plot,” we learn, is the title and topic of a college course which inspired her undergraduate thesis. And her literary leanings seem a natural offshoot of a childhood bedroom wallpapered in images from a storybook—Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline. Late in the novel, Eugenides explains that these images—Madeline poo-pooing a lion, Madeline balancing on a bridge above the Seine, Madeline doing any number of brave and colorful things—influenced Madeleine Hanna’s sense of herself as “the one in a troop of girls a writer might write a book about.” And she is that girl. As the novel progresses, Madeleine seems to get her head above the confusion that threatens to envelop her, and, through perseverance and unassailable sanity, come into her own.

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3 thoughts on “Omnivore’s Oeuvre: The Novels of Jeffrey Eugenides

  1. I’m totally intrigued by these descriptions — especially the marriage plot! I’ve seen the movie of book #1, but have no relationship to the second two books yet; they both sound fascinating, and I love the promise of a strong heroine in book #3. Definitely going to add these to my reading list — thanks for the recs! =)

    XO

    Like

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