Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

To me, this is a classic highly readable modern novel, a la Freedom. It's about people who seem real, and takes place in a real place and time -- New England and New York in the early 1980s. There's no complicated chronology, no scenes set in the future, no characters who reappear under different names, none of that. There's not much in the way of literary device (that I noticed anyway) except the plot itself, a re-imagining of the classic choice between the difficult maverick genius and the "nice guy." My roommate was just telling me about the latest Twilight movie and it sounds exactly like this book, if this book were terrible instead of being awesome, and also included vampire babies (?).

Adding to my enjoyment of it was that it begins in Providence, RI, one of my all-time favorite places. Eugenides' depiction of the mixture of college-town bohemia and uber-WASPiness (I have such a soft spot for WASPiness, croquet and summer homes and martinis at five and not talking about feelings ...) that characterizes Providence's east side was spot on. Just writing that makes me wish I was there right now, taking in the perfect Revolutionary War-era colonials, cobblestone streets and sidewalk cafes.

Bottom line is: definitely read The Marriage Plot if, like me, you real novels instead of watching television. And no matter what you read, visit Providence if you ever have the chance.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Look At Me, by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit From the Goon Squad, my number-one recommended book of the past year or so, is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. While I think anyone who enjoys literary fiction would enjoy Goon Squad, Look At Me is a different kind of novel. I've read so many books about which I thought, "that was good enough, but it was by, about and for men." Look At Me is the rare novel a man might not "get" at all.

The themes are gender, beauty, identity and power, what it means to have control, and what it means to be an object. It's dark and searing, not dark in say an Oryx and Crake kind of way -- that one I had to put down -- but dark in a "this is forcing me to face up to a lot of things I thought I was good at ignoring" kind of way. One of the themes Egan explores that I don't think I've read about before, ever, is the contempt beautiful women have for women who are not attractive, and vice versa. I spent a lot of my life pretending that didn't exist, but it does, and she nails it. She also takes a deep dark look into the advantages beautiful women have in life, and the ones they really do not. There's a great scene where one of the main characters, a 35-year-old former model, sees a young model walking down the street in Manhattan, watches the power the young woman thinks she has in her ability to attract so many male gazes everywhere she goes. And she remembers how she, too, once thought that's what power was, having other people own and control you because of this fleeting quality, and how now she knows real power comes from what you say and do, from autonomy, not from who owns you and how much money they have.

There are a lot of flat and unrealistic elements to this novel, but I really don't care. It's incredibly engrossing, and it has really made me think.