If you walk through Times Square in New York right now, you'll be met with a rare site: a book-themed billboard. A stern-faced Jeffery Eugenides strides past a single word: "Swoon-worthy!"
This is the author's third book, and it's not hard to see why his publishers think he's worth the investment. After all, his previous two works were “The Virgin Suicides,” which was turned into a movie directed by Sofia Coppola, and “Middlesex,” which won the Pulitzer Prize.
His latest book, "The Marriage Plot," seems to be set up for similar accolades.
It opens with a quote by Francois de La Rochefoucauld: "People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about." This becomes the mantra of the book's Jackie O.-like protagonist, Madeleine Hanna.
She is a student at Brown University in the 1980s, whose thesis on love stories intertwines with her relationships with two fellow students: the practical and spiritual Mitchell, whose wanderlust and nostalgic attire complement her aspirations, and Leonard, a husky, whip-smart, tobacco-chewing flirt, whose bi-polar tendencies prove both exhilarating and destructive.
Jeffrey Eugenides came into The Huffington Post office to share his opinions about books, travel, writing with a female voice, and why Henry James is like castor oil.
How did you come to write a book that is, at least ostensibly, about marriage?
It happened little by little. When I started, I didn’t intend for it to be about marriage. I think it started with the line: “Madeleine’s love troubles began at the time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” So I had this idea of a woman in college reading about theory and becoming skeptical about romance, and at the same time, falling in love with someone.
As Madeleine’s character developed, she acquired a love for Jane Austen and Henry James, and I was able to play around with the idea of resuscitating the marriage plot and seeing what still operates in society now that women are in a different position.
Why did you choose to set your book in the 80s?
It wasn’t a big decision for me. It just had to do with remembering my time in college. I could have done it in 2011, but then I would have had to worry about being accurate with every kind of detail. I don’t think the basic emotional content is any different. It’s a contemporary novel. But there’d be texting and other things like that that I’d have to deal with.
Sex and gender play an important role in all of your novels. How do you get into the mindset of writing from a woman’s perspective?
I approach writing female characters the same why I approach writing male characters. I never think I’m writing about women, I think I’m writing about one woman, one person. And I try to imagine what she is like, and endow her with a lot of my own thoughts and history.
Some of the things that happened to Madeleine happened to me. There are certain things about her sister, Alwyn--well, my brother was a hippy. Growing up in the 60s and seeing your older siblings go through it so you don’t have to, that’s autobiographical. For the things that I can’t have experienced, I do that from knowing women over the years, talking to them about things, and just trying to imagine what it’d be like.
In the book, some characters, like Mitchell, are more influenced by travel, while others, like Madeleine, are influenced by books. Which has made a greater impression on your work?
Both. My middle name should be “Middlesex,” because I see both sides of these issues I write about. I was in school my whole life, and then I took a year off and went around the world. I ended up in India, and it was the one great adventure of my youth. It was a time when I learned the things you don’t learn from books, and it has remained a very vivid memory. I’ve been trying to write about it for years and I finally found a proper place for it in this book.
For me, academia and travel go together, and even Mitchell in the book is always reading books while he’s traveling. This book is so much about how reading affects your actual life, which is why the Francois de La Rochefoucauld quote at the beginning is so apt.
The first thing you introduce us to in this novel is Madeleine’s bookshelf, whereas the only book that seems to impact Leonard is the one that's thrown at his head. Why did you choose to use books to describe the characters?
Because this book is about reading, I wanted to begin with that. I think, especially when you’re in college, each book that you’re reading tends to tell you who you are.
I just did an interview with Cicero magazine in Germany. They have a monthly column about people’s personal libraries. It was a really fun interview--I looked at my books, and most of them are still from my college days. Each one is really attached to specific memories. Some of them have things spilled on them, some of them smell like cigars. I know that attaching memories to books may be going out of the world, but while it lasts, it’s a strong record of your life.
Have you ever had a book consume you the way “A Lover’s Discourse” by Roland Barthes did for Madeleine?
In a way, that book consumed me. What’s funny about that book is it’s supposed to anatomize all the parts of love and make you realize how ridiculous they are, and how you’re caught in a web. Yet you read it, and you feel like being in love, you get heartsick. One of the reasons I like Barthes more than other writers of that ilk is because he had a literary quality.
You’ve said that this novel can be taken two ways: it could be interpreted as a deconstruction of the marriage plot, or a more realistic novel. Was it intended to be one or the other?
The book is a marriage plot, and yet it isn’t a marriage plot. It doesn’t carry out the conventions at all, and yet there are moments when the reader should care about who Madeleine will choose. So it does operate on both levels.
The book draws from tradition, but it’s not adverse to modernity. I think it’s sensible in it’s ending. I’ve told the story from three points of view, whereas traditionally it’d just be through the young woman’s point of view, with men just coming at her. Here, it’s opened up in a different way.
In the book, the students studying semiotics criticize Jane Austen and Henry James. Is that what you feel about these authors?
Not at all. My favorite of those writers is James, because he discusses what happens after the marriage, and it’s a little darker. I love those books, but it’s funny, in high school I hated them. They were like castor oil. I was sorry that I couldn’t write those books today. That's why I wrote this one.