Strengths: Eugenides writes excellent prose with a strong attention to detail.
Weaknesses: I don’t care for semiotics, and I’m still not sure what the point of this book was.
Why I read it: Loved Middlesex.
Publisher: Harper Collins
Rating: 7 out of 10
If you liked this, try: I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe is a more well-rounded account of college life. Alternately, there’s always Sweet Valley University.
I’ve thought about this book for some time now after finishing the last page, but I still can’t answer the question: what exactly is the point of this book? Reading the blurb on the back, I thought it would be a funny take on Jane Austen-style romance, but it’s not. It’s full on semiotics, mental health and finding yourself post-university.
Let me try to summarise what this book is actually about. We meet Madeline as she is about to graduate from college. An English major, she secretly revels in books of the Regency and Victorian era, but felt out of touch with her classmates. She takes a class in semiotics (the book goes into great detail about this, but it wasn’t especially interesting for me) and meets Leonard. Leonard becomes her boyfriend, but they break up just before graduation. Madeline gets it on with some random guy the night before graduation, but later gets a phone call to say that Leonard is in the hospital as he stopped taking his lithium. He has bipolar affective disorder, and he and Madeline reunite.
Mitchell has always held a candle for Madeline. A religious studies major, he decides to do a gap year post-college, travelling around the world. Madeline kisses him impulsively before he leaves and he often thinks of her throughout the trip. Meanwhile, Madeline and Leonard are trying to work through various issues with varying degrees of success- will they make it? Will Madeline work out what she wants to do with her life? Will Mitchell ever win Madeline’s heart?
I don’t think this was a version of anything Jane Austen like. There is simply not enough connection between Mitchell and Madeline that you want them to get together; while Leonard and Madeline obviously have barriers to a long term relationship. Is the marriage in the book an ironic look at the happy ever after of Regency and Victorian novels? Again, I don’t think so. Maybe there is something in there related to semiotics, but I don’t get it.
The book is well written and the characters are fleshed out well. It’s hard to be sympathetic with Madeline though – she’s a bit of a drip. Even in the 1980s, to put everything aside for a man is a bit stupid and again not like a Jane Austen heroine. Mitchell was my favourite character – he has his flaws, but works through them to become a better person for it.
To be honest, I was expecting a lot more from this book after thoroughly enjoying Middlesex. It’s an okay read, but nothing stellar.