His latest book, The Marriage Plot, features a smart, thoughtful heroine who's believable in every way except one: She has no true friends
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.
Indeed, the one glimpse we get of what true friendship would look like for Madeleine is at a literary conference, where she meets two young women who share her love of Victorian novels. "As little as she had in common with Meg and Anne," Eugenides writes of her new friends, "Madeleine couldn't remember having a better time. The entire weekend, they didn't once ask if she had a boyfriend. They just wanted to talk about literature." Where were women like Meg and Anne when Madeleine was at college? It seems impossible that Madeleine would have made it through four years at Brown without meeting other women who'd rather discuss literature than men.
Eugenides is not alone in his failure to give his protagonist believable female friends. Authentic portrayals of female friendship are so rare that there's a test to evaluate stories based on how they depict women interacting with each other: the now-infamous Bechdel Test. It suggests that for a story to be even a somewhat realistic portrayal of women, it must have "at least two female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man." The Marriage Plot (except for those few, brief pages set at the lit conference) fails the Bechdel Test, but so does a whole range of contemporary books and movies with supposedly intelligent female leads, from Lost In Translation to Blue Valentine to One Day. Even Bridesmaids, the otherwise groundbreaking female-centric comedy from earlier this year, fell short in its rendering of female friends (though it did pass the Bechdel Test). As Miriam Krule wrote here at The Atlantic soon after the film came out, "this movie is about enemies who started out friends, and for reasons that are unclear to the viewer, become friends again by the end."
The great irony, of course, is that the old-fashioned, marriage-plot-bound books that Eugenides attempts to modernize in his new novel actually do a better job of portraying female friendship than The Marriage Plot. Long before Jane utters the famous line "Reader, I married him," in Jane Eyre, she has a close female friend in boarding school, Helen. What do she and Helen talk about? Not their boyfriends. Instead, they spend long hours discussing what it means to be a good person. Sense and Sensibility, another marriage plot-driven book, portrays a sisterly relationship that's far more generous and loving than any you'd find in popular fiction today: Marianne and Elinor Dashwood point out each other's faults, but with the goal of mutual growth and self-improvement, not belittlement. And the book's final line assures the reader that the sisters remain close, even after their weddings—"happily ever after" includes sustained intimacy between the sisters as well as between each sister and her husband.
It's hard not to imagine what The Marriage Plot would be like if Eugenides had written a few good friends for Madeleine, as her dearth of friendship has dire consequences: She makes a series of bad decisions in the book that she almost certainly would not have made if she'd had a friend like Helen or a sister like Elinor Dashwood. The book's infuriating, preposterous ending (which I won't reveal here) is only possible because Madeleine lives almost entirely in her own head, with no one to give her trusted counsel. There are many ways rewriting the traditional marriage plot might be good for women, but editing out rich, supportive friendships isn't one of them.
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