Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Favorites of 2012: Books


Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). There are two modes of thought that we each employ: we use the fast "System 1" for things like emotional responses, intuitions, or snap judgments, and the slow "System 2" for things like calculation or logical argument. But this division of mental labor often leads us into error when we use System 1 for tasks that really require System 2. We confuse familiarity with truth, allow random suggestions to affect our judgments, assume small samples are representative, and focus on the details of a problem to the exclusion of important information from its larger context. And advertisers, politicians, and others who want to manipulate us take full advantage of these cognitive failings. In my post on Thinking, Fast and Slow I wrote "You'll never look at apparently simple choices in the same way again—and that's a good thing." This very entertaining book is a must-read for anyone who has a brain.

Alison Bechdel: Are You My Mother? (Houghton Mifflin, 2012). In her brilliant graphic memoir Fun Home (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), Bechdel depicted the emotional consequences of her closeted gay father's secret life on him and on the rest of her family. Now she turns to her difficult relationship with her mother. In my post Alison Bechdel: DTWOF, Fun Home, and Are You My Mother? I wrote of this "very rewarding" book that it had "many of the strengths of Fun Home—emotional honesty, thoughtfulness, and a clear-eyed portrayal of everyone involved..."


Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random House, 2012). This widely praised book has been marketed as nonfiction; indeed, it is the winner of the 2012 National Book Award in that category. However, Boo confesses in her afterword that she speaks no Indian languages and relied on translators for all of her interactions with the struggling residents of Annawadi, an impoverished settlement adjacent to the luxury hotels that surround Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. Despite her language handicap, though, Boo is somehow able to transcribe lengthy internal monologues by her characters, and record verbatim conversations at which it is extremely unlikely that she or her translators were present. There's a word for books which feature these sorts of things: novels. This is a well-written and affecting work of imaginative recreation, or, as we say in my house, fiction.

William Thackeray: Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. (1844). Barry Lyndon is a charming rogue, a soldier of fortune, a gambler, a brawler, and an extremely unreliable narrator of his highly entertaining memoirs. "The great and rich are welcomed, smiling, up the grand staircase of the world; the poor but aspiring must clamber up the wall, or push and struggle up the back stair, or, pardi, crawl through any of the conduits of the house, never mind how foul and narrow, that lead to the top" (Ch. 10).

Orhan Pamuk: Museum of Innocence (Iletişim, 2008; Knopf, 2009). Kemal begins a passionate affair with his beautiful 18-year-old niece Füsun that shatters his complacent existence. After the affair ends abruptly, Kemal turns the apartment where he and Füsun made love in the afternoons into a shrine to Füsun and their brief time together. Over the years, he accumulates a museum's worth of emotionally-charged objects touched in some way by her presence: earrings, toothbrushes, barrettes, cigarette butts with traces of her lipstick.

As I wrote in Orhan Pamuk, "In a real-life extension of the novel, Pamuk has opened an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul; every copy of the novel comes with an admission ticket (printed on page 520 of the paperback edition). People ‘forget the objects with which they had lived so intimately, never even acknowledging their emotional attachment to them' (p. 510). The Museum of Innocence attempts to reclaim these everyday objects from the oblivion to which time, changing fashion and our indifference generally consign them by allowing us to see them through Kemal's haunted eyes. Pamuk has also published a kind of catalog to his museum, The Innocence of Objects (Iletişim, 2012; Abrams, 2012)."

Michael Frayn: Headlong (Faber, 1999). Martin believes he's stumbled across a previously unknown Bruegel in his neighbor's country house. His discovery inaugurates a chain of bad behavior and worse decisions. In Trapped in subjectivity: Michael Frayn I wrote, "Exactly who is using whom grows less and less certain, while the likelihood that all of these entanglements are going to lead to disaster for Martin becomes more and more so."

Biggest disappointment

Haruki Murakami: 1Q84 (Knopf, 2011). Aomame is a beautiful, bisexual assassin who favors miniskirts and lusts after middle-aged men with receding hairlines; Tengo is an aspiring writer. In childhood they shared a moment of intense emotional connection. Two decades later they find themselves in an alternate version of 1984 Tokyo, trying desperately to connect with one another.

The novel's odd details—fanatical religious cults, a women's shelter that assures the safety of its residents by murdering their abusers, a dogged detective, and Little People who can move between the parallel worlds of 1984 and 1Q84—held my interest for about three-quarters of this 900-page book. But then it became increasingly difficult to ignore the novel's clunky writing (perhaps partly the fault of hasty translation by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel) and schematic plot. As I wrote in Haruki Murakami's 1Q84: "The novel seemed to be ending just when the most interesting part of the story—Tengo and Aomame's emergence from their emotional shells—was about to begin."

More Favorites of 2012: Bollywood and Bengal, Movies, Television, and Music

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Favorites of 2012: Music

For me 2012 was The Year of Haydn. In Haydn Chamber Music I wrote, "For many years I resisted the appeal of Joseph Haydn's music. It seemed too clever to be profound, too pleasant to be emotionally affecting." Well, his music is clever and pleasant, although those virtues don't seem as minor to me as they once did. But they are also intricate, beautifully structured, melodically appealing, and (yes) emotionally moving.

The performances of Haydn's string quartets by the period-instrument ensemble Quatuor Mosaïques are revelatory, and helped me to appreciate the quartet form in a way that I never had managed to do before. And while in his operas Haydn doesn't quite achieve the emotional depth of, say, Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, they are filled with wonderful music. I wrote a full-length post on Haydn's operas; here is mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus singing "Se non piange un infelice" from Haydn's L'Isola Disabitata (The Desert Island), accompanied by Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis:

More arias from the operas are included in the "Haydn's operas" post.

The Met Live in HD: The Enchanted Island and La Clemenza di Tito

The Met Live in HD continues to be an excellent series, and it's a fun way to spend a Saturday morning (on the West Coast the matinee broadcasts begin between 9 and 10 am). This year was notable for two outstanding productions. On January 21 we saw The Enchanted Island, a modern pasticcio of arias by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and others. The original words were replaced with a new English-language libretto by Jeremy Sams that shipwrecks the lovers from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream on Prospero's island from The Tempest. Great music, Sams' witty libretto, and the committed performances of a cast that included David Daniels, Danielle De Niese, Joyce Didonato, Plácido Domingo, Luca Pisaroni and Lisette Oropesa (a delightful Romilda in the SF Opera's 2011 production of Handel's Xerxes) made this new-old opera an utter delight.

But for me the biggest discovery of The Enchanted Island was Elizabeth DeShong, who sang the role of Hermia. She has a scene at the opening of Act II, based on "Where shall I fly?" from Handel's oratorio Hercules, that shows off her thrilling voice. She's a singer we'll definitely be looking for in the future.

On December 1, the Met broadcast Mozart's next-to-last opera, La Clemenza di Tito (The Mercy of Titus, 1791) in a handsome Jean-Pierre Ponelle production. Speaking of handsome, the gorgeous Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča performed the role of the conflicted Sesto, lover of the vengeful Vitellia (Barbara Frittoli). While her fashion-model looks haven't hurt Garanča's career, more importantly she brings to her roles a fierce commitment and a meltingly beautiful voice:

Also outstanding in this production were Lucy Crowe as Sesto's sister Servilia, and Kate Lindsey as Annio, Servilia's lover and Sesto's steadfast friend. If the libretto makes the Emperor Titus (a subdued Giuseppe Filianoti) too good to be true, the singers and conductor Harry Bicket made as convincing as possible a case for the opera.

Favorite live music event: Polychoral Splendors of the Renaissance, First Congregational Church, Berkeley, Friday, Feb. 3. Produced by Cal Performances.

The best concert we saw in 2012 wasn't the three-hour-long show put on by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Oakland on November 30 (the obnoxious drunken morons sitting behind us made sure of that). It was of music written more than 400 years before "Born To Run": Alessandro Striggio's mass "Ecco si beato giorno," whose final Agnus Dei is performed by five separate 12-voice choirs. In the post Sixteenth-century psychedelia: Polychoral Splendors of the Renaissance, I wrote that being enveloped by this wave of sound was "a consciousness-altering experience." The awe-inspiring performances of 40-, 50- and 60-part polychoral works by the combined choruses of several Bay Area early music groups under the direction of conductor and musicologist Davitt Moroney were a musical experience that we will never forget.

Favorite recording: Mission. Cecilia Bartoli with Philippe Jaroussky. I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis, conductor. Decca 4784732.

Cecilia Bartoli's catalog of recordings is filled with rarities, such as her recent aria collections from 17th-century Italian oratorios (Opera Proibita) and from roles written for castrati (Sacrificium). But few of the composers whose work she has revived have been less recorded than Agostino Steffani (1654-1728). A contemporary of Alessandro Scarlatti, Steffani was the Kappellmeister for the Hanoverian court before Handel was appointed to the post. Handel and Steffani knew one another, and Handel thought so highly of Steffani's vocal duets that he used them as models for his own.

Four duets (with electrifying countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who starred in the Boston Early Music Festival's production of Niobe, Regina di Tebe) appear on this very generous 25-track album, which also includes solo arias from a dozen of Steffani's operas. And the music is of exceptional quality; it's astonishing that it is so little known:

Other Favorites of 2012: Bollywood and Bengal, Movies, Television, and Books

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Favorites of 2012: Television

Francesca Annis in Lillie

Most of our favorite television series of 2011—among them Daniel Deronda, The Barchester Chronicles, Cranford, and Desperate Romantics—were set in the high Victorian Era of the mid-1800s. In 2012 we seemed to be following a chronological thread forward to the Vicwardian age of the late 1800s and early 1900s (Lillie, The Duchess of Duke Street, and Tipping the Velvet), and beyond to the 1920s and 30s (The House of Eliott).

Mrs. Langtry by Edward Poynter, 1878

Lillie (ITV, 1978) is based on the scandalous life of Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), who cut a swath through the late-Victorian artistic and aristocratic worlds. A renowned beauty, she was painted by John Everett Millais, Frank Miles, James Sant, Edward Poynter and others. A famous actress, she was a close friend of Oscar Wilde (the character of Lady Windermere is said to have been based on her). And she took many lovers, including the Prince of Wales—later, of course, to become King Edward VII.

The superb actress Francesca Annis (Wives and Daughters, Cranford) doesn't merely portray Lillie, she inhabits her, making her passions and contradictions utterly believable. My only regret is that we don't see more of Lillie in her roles onstage, but given her eventful life offstage (multiple lovers, numerous scandals, and an illegitimate child) perhaps there simply wasn't enough time.  

Gemma Jones as Louisa

The Duchess of Duke Street (BBC, 1976-1977) is also based on a real-life figure: Rosa Lewis, "The Duchess of Jermyn Street." Like Lewis, the fictional Louisa Leyton (Gemma Jones) is a working-class girl who comes to London determined to become a celebrated chef. At one of the aristocratic dinners she prepares, she encounters the Prince of Wales (historically, this would have been about a decade after the end of his affair with Lillie Langtry). The depiction of the Prince of Wales in The Duchess isn't as flattering as it is in Lillie: he is less the charming rogue and more the sexual predator, using blackmail and bribery to coerce the pretty Louisa into sex.

Rosa Lewis, early 1900s
As a result of the affair Louisa acquires just enough means to purchase the Bentick Hotel on Duke Street (Lewis became the proprietor of the Cavendish Hotel, at the corner of Jermyn and Duke Streets), and the bulk of the series follows her attempts to keep the hotel going. If the most compelling episodes are the early ones that feature Louisa's struggles to establish herself against all odds, she remains a sympathetic (if hard-nosed) figure throughout, and Jones' performance is a delight.

Tipping the Velvet (BBC, 2002): Based on Sarah Waters' 1998 novel of the same title, this 3-episode series has a great cast that includes Rachel Stirling (Diana Riggs' daughter), Keeley Hawes (of Wives and Daughters), Anna Chancellor (of the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice), Jodhi May (of Daniel Deronda), and Sally Hawkins (of Happy-Go-Lucky, An Education and Never Let Me Go). It also has a daring Andrew Davies script that features cross-dressing and same-sex attraction in the music halls of 1890s London. Lavish production values, excellent performances and a sexy, literate screenplay: what more could you ask?

The House of Eliott (BBC, 1991-1994) follows the fortunes of the Eliott sisters Beatrice (Stella Gonet) and Evangeline (Louise Lombard) as they try to establish their own clothing design studio in 1920s London.

The two main actresses are talented and lovely, although it's something of a stretch to imagine them as sisters. But a key reason to watch this series is the costumes. Designer Joan Wadge (along with James Keast in the 1992 season) made the fabulous creations worn by the cast: backless flapper dresses, stunning evening gowns, cloche hats. Every episode is a visual feast of 1920s clothes, cars, chaises, and cocktail shakers.

The scripts aren't quite as strong as the chic. Perhaps because there were so many writers in this Jean Marsh- and Eileen Atkins-produced series (at least 9 over the three seasons) the narrative can suddenly lurch in unexpected directions. For example, in the first series we're introduced to the daredevil pilot Sebastian (Jeremy Brudenell) as Bea and Evie's evil half brother who is plotting to steal their inheritance. But then it turns out that their philandering father left them no inheritance. And then Sebastian turns out not to be evil, and not to be their half brother. And then he becomes Evie's romantic interest. And then—spoiler alert!—he dies in a plane crash.

There's an episode that clearly seems intended to wrap up all the first-season storylines: on a trip to Paris, movie director Jack (Aden Gillett) proposes to Bea, while Evie is offered a five-year contract as a designer for (and embarks on an affair with the head of) the firm of Maison Gilles. Only, because the show was renewed for another year, this episode was apparently shifted to the beginning of the second series. Rather than wrapping everything up, the writers had to furiously backpedal: in the very next episode Evie ends her affair and returns from Paris to rejoin the House of Eliott, and Jack and Bea's marriage comes under strain.

So don't watch this series for narrative consistency, but do watch it for the gorgeous recreations of 1920s couture.

Other Favorites of 2012: Bollywood and Bengal, Movies, Music, and Books

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Favorites of 2012: Movies

Here are my favorite (non-Indian) movies first seen in the past twelve months; for Indian films, see Favorites of 2012: Bollywood and Bengal.

Mysteries of Lisbon (Mistérios de Lisboa, 2010): Chilean director Raúl Ruiz's next-to-last film is more than four hours long, but its length is fully justified by its sweep, complexity, and visual splendor. Adapted by screenwriter Carlos Saboga from a 19th-century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, the film begins with an orphan boy's search for his origins, and soon takes us into stories nested within stories about forbidden passions and social upheaval in the aristocratic world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Ruiz's camerawork is sometimes deliberately obtrusive in a way that will be familiar if you saw his version of Proust's Time Regained (1999). Perhaps intended as a Brechtian alenation effect, or perhaps as a way of making the action seem more dreamlike, the gliding camera sometimes seems overdone to me. But this is a minor quibble in such a rich and involving film.

Romantics Anonymous (Les émotifs anonymes, 2010): At the other end of several spectrums from Ruiz's epic is writer/director Jean-Pierre Améris' short, slight and sweetly charming film. Angélique (Isabelle Carré) and Jean-René (Benoît Poelvoorde) are two cripplingly shy people trying to overcome their fears and find a soulmate. To add to the pleasures of the writing and performances, much of the film revolves around the preparation and tasting of exquisite-looking chocolates.

Babette's Feast (Babettes gæstebud, 1987): Speaking of exquisite food, half of this film's 100-minute running time is taken up with the preparation and consumption of the title's once-in-a-lifetime meal. Based on an Isak Dinesen story, Babette's Feast portrays the thwarted lives of two sisters, Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), in an isolated, windswept Scandinavian village. The women are the daughters of a sternly ascetic pastor, and after their father's death they grow old ministering to his dwindling congregation. Into their lives comes Babette (Stéphane Audran), a refugee from Paris, who agrees to become their housekeeper. Babette is concealing a secret, though, which changes everyone's lives when it is revealed by an extraordinary stroke of good fortune.

I had avoided seeing this film when it came out because it seemed to dovetail a little too neatly with the focus on gourmandizing and the retreat from political engagement apparent in the yuppified Berkeley of the mid-1980s. I'm glad I finally rectified my mistake: this is a film not only about the sensuous pleasures of food, but about love, loyalty, and the joys of making use of one's gifts and sharing one's passions.

Outsourced (2006): A call-center manager finds that his entire department has been outsourced, and that he is being sent to India to train his own replacement. As I wrote in the post "Cross-cultural comedy: Outsourced and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," the message of writer/director John Jeffcoat's movie "is one of tolerance, openness to new ideas and experiences, and acceptance of differences."

Street of Shame (Akasen chitai, 1956):  Director Kenzi Mizoguchi's final film, based in part on Yoshiko Shibaki's short stories "Susaki paradaisu" and "Yako no Onna," depicts the intertwined lives of five women who work at a brothel in Tokyo's seamy red-light district. The brothel is named "Dreamland," and each woman dreams of escape—dreams that for most of them will inevitably be shattered. Most of the women have been trapped in prostitution by poverty and familial responsibility, and face ostracism by a hypocritical society that allowed them no other choices. The film's final images of an innocent new recruit timidly beckoning the drunken, reeling men passing by in the street suggest that the bitter experiences of the women are doomed to be endlessly repeated.

First Position (2011): Bess Kargman's documentary follows seven young dancers as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, an international competition that will determine their futures. The dancers come from North and South America and the Middle East, range in age from 10 to 17, and come from very diverse backgrounds. Aran Bell, 11 at the time of filming, is the son of a military doctor; Michaela DePrince, 14 at the time of filming, was orphaned by the civil war in Sierra Leone; and Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16 at the time of filming, lives and trains in New York, thousands of miles away from his family in Columbia. As with The Audition, Susan Froemke's compelling 2008 documentary about the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions, the competition provides built-in drama. The film isn't flawless—we see only brief excerpts of most of the dances, and there are no interviews with anyone who offers a critical perspective on dance competitions. But the stories of these dancers and their struggles to excel at their chosen art are riveting.

Update 16 December 2012: For more favorites, see Bollywood and Bengal, Television, Music, and Books

Monday, December 10, 2012

Favorites of 2012: Bollywood and Bengal

Meena Kumari as Lalita in Bimal Roy's Parineeta (The Married Woman, 1953)

This wasn't a great year for our Bollywood viewing. Films first seen this year included:
  • Anamika (The Nameless Girl, 1973): a young Jaya Bhaduri and great songs by R.D. Burman don't quite compensate for the credulity-stretching script;
  • Bhool Bhulaiyaa (The Maze, 2007) and Kismat Konnection (2008): Vidya Balan with a couple of misses after the successes of Parineeta (The Married Woman, 2005) and Lage Raho Munna Bhai (Go on, Brother Munna, 2006);
  • Dil Maange More (The Heart Wants More, 2004): Shahid Kapoor before Vivah (Marriage, 2006) or Kareena;
  • Don 2 (2011): SRK in a dispiriting and pointless sequel;
  • Ek Baar Phir (One More Time, 1980): Pradeep Verma and the lovely Deepti Naval in a too-schematic story;
  • Ek Main aur Ekk Tu (One Me and One You, 2012): Kareena in her umpteenth MPDG role;
  • Mausam (Seasons, 2011): Shahid Kapoor and (fatally) Sonam Kapoor separated once too often by history;
  • Namastey London (Greetings, London, 2007): Katrina Kaif before she got better;
  • Ra.One (2011): SRK aiming for the teen boys market;
  • Raajneeti (Politics, 2010): A Godfather remake, only without any of the touches that made Coppola's film so compelling;
  • Satyam Shivam Sundaram (True, Eternal, Beautiful, 1978): Zeenat Aman wearing a fake scar and little else. 
As my capsule descriptions imply, all were disappointing in one way or another.

Old Is Gold

My favorite Indian film of 2012 was Bimal Roy's Parineeta (The Married Woman, 1953), made 60 years ago. You can read my full-length post, with screen caps and videos, by clicking the title link. The short version of that post is that this film fully deserves its classic status; Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari give heartrending performances as the lovers separated by a family feud.

Dev Anand and Shakila in C.I.D.

 C.I.D. (1956): Coming in a close second is this effective Bollywood noir. It features Dev Anand as a detective investigating the murder of a crusading newspaper editor and Waheeda Rehman (in her (Hindi) debut!) as a femme fatale with a heart of gold (à la Gloria Grahame in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953)). O.P. Nayyar's soundtrack is filled with memorable songs performed by Shamshad Begum, Geeta Dutt, and Mohd. Rafi, such as the bitterly ironic "Bombay Meri Jaan." As he did for so many Guru Dutt-produced films, V. K. Murthy provided the atmospheric black-and-white cinematography. On the Ultra DVD of the film, though, his haunting images are marred by a hideous red, white and blue logo on every frame.

Honorable mention:

Tanuja as Sunita in Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi

Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi (Spring Will Always Come Again, 1966): Until it goes off the rails with madness and melodrama in the final half hour, Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi is a compelling love triangle between investigative reporter Jitendra (Dharmendra at the peak of his attractiveness), his courageous editor Amita (Mala Sinha), and her vivacious younger sister Sunita (a charming Tanuja). When the two women discover each other's true feelings towards Jitendra, each decides to sacrifice her own love for her sister's happiness. Very much worth watching for the cast, the gorgeous black and white cinematography of K.G. Prabhakar, and the lovely music by O.P. Nayyar. As I wrote in my full-length post, "...who can resist the combination of Tanuja and Asha in "Koi Kehde"? Certainly not Dharmendra:"

More Favorites of 2012: Movies, Television, Music, and Books

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Jeffrey Eugenides: The Marriage Plot

In Who Cares if Tanu Weds Manu?: The New Bollywood Romantic Comedy I asked, "in a modern world where everyone can choose (and change) their romantic and sexual partners at will, where class and caste barriers are diminished and the concept of social disgrace seems quaint (at least, once you've graduated from high school), is the romantic comedy still possible?"

This question is also central to Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). Madeleine Hanna is a Brown University undergraduate in the early 1980s who is somewhat adrift. "She'd become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read," the narrator tells us on page 20, and what she loves to read most of all are the the great but academically unfashionable 19th-century novelists: Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Henry James.

The 19th-century novel is driven by the marriage plot, the heroine's crucial choice of her marriage partner, and Madeleine is also beset by romantic choices. It doesn't hurt that she's beautiful enough to carry off "the Annie Lennox look" (though she's a little premature: when she gets her new hairstyle in the fall of 1981, the Eurhythmics' Sweet Dreams won't be released for another year).* The earnest religious studies major Mitchell Grammaticus desperately wants to change his status from friend to lover, but is unsure how to go about it in the face of Madeline's lack of encouragement. Instead, her erotic interest is focussed on her Semiotics 211 classmate Leonard Bankhead, who is tall, handsome, and popular, but who is concealing a debilitating manic depression.

The novel is strongest, at least for me, in the scenes set at Brown. Eugenides evidently went to college around the same time I did, and he captures his characters' confusions, uncertainties and cultural referents so uncannily well that halfway through the book I turned to my partner and said, "I feel as though I could have written this book." A delusionary feeling, of course, but it does say something about Eugenides' skill that he could make his characters' dilemmas seem so real and his narrative read so effortlessly well.

The novel loses a bit of steam in the second half, as it follows the travails of Madeleine and Leonard, and Mitchell's soul-searching post-graduation trip to Europe and India. Here again, though, Eugenides nails the at times bewildering difficulties of making the transition to adulthood.

Eugenides' models for The Marriage Plot seem to be James' Portrait of a Lady (1881), Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence (1920), and especially Eliot's Middlemarch (1874): novels that don't end with the heroine's wedding, but continue into the compromises and unhappinesses of married life. Of course, we live in an age of premarital sex and easy divorce, which means that the heroine's choices have far fewer permanent consequences. Eugenides doesn't pretend that 19th-century mores still pertain; early in the novel he even has one of Madeleine's English professors declare that the novel is now defunct because the marriage plot is no longer possible:

...the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel.  And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? As far as [Professor] Saunders was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. (p. 22)

Eugenides seems to be setting himself the task of proving that the novel of romantic choice is still possible. As it turns out, he's up to something a little more complicated. Romantic choice for his characters is hugely important and emotionally fraught—but, perhaps, not quite as destiny-defining as it once was. Romantic choice is now only one of a range of decisions we have to make about the course of our lives. By the end of The Marriage Plot, each of the characters recognizes that there are no happy endings, only a series of beginnings. And while that may not be as satisfying as Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy recognizing their true feelings for one another, in our contemporary world it's the best they, and we, can do.


* I noticed another minor anachronism: Madeleine sees a girl in the library "who was unfortunately rather cute in a busty Bettie Page way" (p. 41). But The Betty Pages, the fanzine which sparked the resurgence of interest in 1950s pinup queen Bettie Page, wasn't published until 1987.