February 2, 2012

January Reading Recap

Last month I read three of the four books on my list:

MAN IN THE WOODS by Scott Spencer - This novel is about guilt and secrets, two of my favorite themes. I posted some thoughts on the book already from a writerly perspective. The richly drawn characters are wonderful, and the plot weaves together in an interesting and usually surprising way. This is a book I'll be looking at again to learn more about constructing a story, and I recommend it to readers interested in a suspenseful, character-driven novel.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides - I'm sorry to say that I didn't like this book as much as I wanted to. I loved MIDDLESEX, Eugenides's previous novel, and this one didn't engage me in the same way. However, since MIDDLESEX won the Pulitzer Prize, it's naturally a hard book to top. THE MARRIAGE PLOT still has fascinating characters and an interesting story, and other readers might connect with it more than I did.

The story follows three characters in the year after their graduation from Brown University in 1982. Madeleine is an English major with a thesis about "the marriage plot" and its gradual disappearance from Western literature. She's in love with Leonard, a manic-depressive biologist. And she's firmly not in love with her friend Mitchell, who travels to Europe and India seeking spiritual fulfillment and an escape from his unrequited love of Madeleine.

I eventually became attached to the characters and their various adventures. I was less taken in by the novel's digressions into cerebral topics such as semiotics and literary theory. Perhaps if I'd read the authors who are name-dropped in the story, I might have found these sections more engaging. I was startled to find this apt and possibly self-conscious passage near the end of the novel:

The experience of watching Leonard get better was like reading certain difficult books. It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.

Does this mean my experience of reading THE MARRIAGE PLOT was exactly what Eugenides intended? Even if not, coming across this sentence increased my pleasure in the book.

FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley - I expect it will not be news to anybody that this is the story of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who assembles and gives life to a monstrous creature. It was written almost 200 years ago and is considered one of the earliest works of science fiction.

FRANKENSTEIN is a fairly exciting tale, but with my modern reading sensibilities, I couldn't help but notice all the places where a different storytelling style would have better highlighted the excitement. The pacing and structure seem less than optimal, though I imagine they are in keeping with the conventions of the time. I was less impatient with this story than with some of the other old books I've read, and it's kind of cool that a 200-year-old novel can still be read and enjoyed.

A side note: I thought I'd read this book before, and in particular I recalled that I'd read about two-thirds and then stopped for some reason. My paperback has a bookmark around that spot, confirming this theory. But nothing in the book was familiar, and I would have concluded that I didn't read it after all, except that I recently reread another book and found that I didn't remember a thing about it. I think of myself as having a good memory for what I read, and I can remember details of many books that I read decades ago, but I guess I only retain some books and lose others.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Livia Blackburne shares what she's doing differently as she starts her second novel: "While I love my cliffhangers dearly, they can only take you so far. I now see cliffhangers as part of a larger set of tools to keep readers invested. If readers build an emotional connection to the character, they'll keep reading -- plus, they'll keep thinking about the book after they finish."


Andrea Blythe said...

I remember thinking Frankenstein was just okay, probably because of the older style of the writing as you pointed out. I ended up writing a report on it for a college class, though, about the layering within the story. How its told through many lenses, which distort the point of view, something like a narration of a journal of a something else. There were three of them I think, but I can't remember at the moment.


Lisa Eckstein said...

That would make a good paper topic. The story-within-a-story structure is interesting, but doesn't seem like necessarily the best choice. There's the frame story of the ship captain, who is listening to the story told by Frankenstein, who at one point passes several chapters listening to the story told by his creation, who spends a while relating the history of the family he's watching. Definitely a lot of distortion going on in that.

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