What Jeffrey Eugenides Doesn't Understand About Women

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His latest book, The Marriage Plot, features a smart, thoughtful heroine who's believable in every way except one: She has no true friends

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Jeffrey Eugenides knows how to write women. In his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, he drew the five Lisbon sisters as believable archetypes (Cecilia the loner, promiscuous Lux, and so on) without turning them into caricatures. For his second, Middlesex, he masterfully inhabited the mind of a child born female who later transitions to being a man.

Eugenides's third and latest novel, The Marriage Plot, arguably represents his most ambitious approach to gender yet: Rather than describing young women from the point of view of a collective male narrator, as he did in The Virgin Suicides, or creating an intersex protagonist, as he did in Middlesex, he writes from the point of view of a woman, Madeleine. And, as suggested by the title, he's not writing just any female character. He's attempting to create a woman who wrestles with and possibly defies the traditional Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte novel's expectations for her gender: that is, the expectation that her story will end with a wedding.

For the most part, The Marriage Plot follows in the footsteps of its predecessors as an authentic portrait of what it is to be female: Madeleine is an almost totally plausible Ivy League English major. (I would know, as I am one myself.) She has a strained relationship with her mother, whose advice she both solicits and ignores. Faced with the choice between an unstable, brooding scientist who doesn't believe love exists and an earnest, adoring religion major who believes Madeleine is his soul mate, she picks the aloof brooder. She is prone to thoughts like this when contemplating her future: "She could become a spinster, like Emily Dickinson, writing poems full of dashes and brilliance, and never gaining weight."

But there's one way, however, in which Madeleine defies believability: She has no true female friends. Yes, she has roommates and a sister with whom she once had "heavy" emotional conversations, but these relationships are characterized more by spite than affection. And, sadly, The Marriage Plot is just the latest story to forget to give its heroine friends. There are countless other Madeleines in modern-day literature and film: smart, self-assured women who have all the trappings of contemporary womanhood except a group of friends to confide in.

When the young man Madeleine has recently broken up with is committed to the hospital for a nervous breakdown, none of Madeleine's friends bothers to tell her—she only finds out when one of his buddies calls on graduation day to give her the news. (When Madeleine confronts her roommates later, they claim to have concealed the truth from her to protect her, but the exchange is so tense, so full of contempt, that it's impossible to believe her friends' actions were motivated by anything other than spite.)

Similarly, Madeleine's relationship with her sister, Alwyn, is oddly chilly and hostile. At one point, she dramatically reveals to their mother that Madeleine's boyfriend is on lithium for manic depression. It's an announcement made not out of concern for her sister, but in triumph: She wants to prove to their mother that Madeleine's relationship isn't as perfect as it seems, and in turn deflect attention from her own failing marriage.

If this were the way women really acted with their friends, it would be fine. Novelists are under no obligation to make relationships seem sunnier than they are in real life. But real women don't treat their friends this way. Real women have true friends—not friends they secretly hate, not friends they are in constant competition with, but friends they care about and can talk to and who understand them. Women who love books, as Madeleine does, are especially prone to close friendships with other women because there is an obvious subject to talk about: books.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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