The Story: Set in 1982, this one is a love triangle between three graduating students from Brown offering a preppy twist on (surprise, surprise) the marriage plot.
Madeline is a lit major with an unhealthy obsession for the Victorian romance. She wants love to be like it is in the books. She sets out to find herself a broody hero and snags Leonard.
Leonard is a modern Byronic bad boy: impulsive, irritable and manic-depressive. But he’s also roguishly handsome, and before Madeline ‘tames’ him, he had a reputation as the campus bicycle.
Unbeknown to her, Madeline also has another admirer, Mitchell. Unfortunately for Mitchell, he’s fallen into the ‘good friend’ category in Madeline’s book. He’s determined that Madeline will eventually dump sad-sack Leonard and marry him. But after graduation Mitchell is planning to spend a year ‘finding himself’ in India and Madeline, having read one to many Victrian novels, is inclined to marry young.
Why It’s Awesome: I did mention it was by Jeffrey Eugenides, right?
I should say, this is a literary snob of a book. Normally I’m not into wanky lit that requires the reader to have an English PhD, but given this one incorporates Victorian romance and campus fiction (both research subjects of my PhD), I’m inclined to indulge it. There are a lot of flashbacks to the students’ classes, in particular Madeline and Leonard’s shared cultural theory topic, so if you’re not up to speed on your Sassure, Derrida and Barthes, these flashbacks can be more than a little alienating.
However, lit nerds will feel like Eugenides is writing just for them. This book is the Bronte meets bratpack. Love triangle aside, The Marriage Plot is about that awkward time many of us arty types face after uni when we realise we have no clue what the hell we’re supposed to do out in the big wide world.
More Like This: The Marriage Plot is full of intertextuality, so I’m not even going to attempt a ‘suggested additional reading list’. However, it fits into preppy student campus fiction sub-genre, so if it’s to your tastes, try Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction, Jill Eisenstadt’s From Rockaway and (my favourite) Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
If you’re a Eugenides virgin, you absolutely MUST get your goggles on Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides.
Eugenides is one of my absolute favourite writers and I was SO FREAKING EXCITED when I found he had a new book out.
Even better, it’s about a lit. major. At Brown. She studies Victorian romance. SQUEEE!!!
There’s quite a lot of talk about cultural theory, etc. which a lot of readers might find alienating, but for those of you who, like me, struggled through Derrida and Barthes thinking ‘Dear God, why are they making us read this stuff?!’ Well, here’s the answer.
For all the nerds out there, this one’s for us!!!
The Story: 1867. Charles is visiting the English town of Lyme with his fiance, Ernestina. There he meets Sarah, a supposed ‘fallen woman’ who lost her virtue to a shipwrecked French naval lieutenant.
A suitably tragic Victorian romance ensues.
Why It’s Awesome: I’d been looking forward to this one for a long time. I read John Fowles’ The Collector a few years ago and polished it off in an afternoon it was that good.
Therefore, I had high expectations for The French Lieutenant’s Woman and I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. Ostensibly, it’s a Victorian novel, but Fowles employs a self-conscious 20th century narrator to comment on the class and gender inequities of the Victorian age. He also talks about Roland Barthes, Bertolt Brecht and various other contemporary theorists and how their ideas have impacted on his crafting of the story. This is interesting enough to start with, but becomes increasingly tiresome. It’s annoyingly Brechtian, in that the reader is constantly being pulled out of the story to be reminded that what they are reading is a constructed piece of fiction with broader social, philosophical, cultural and thematic resonance. Written in the late 60s, when cultural theory was incredibly hip, this was probably very exciting, but for me (who loves nothing better than a really devastating Victorian romance) it was a little frustrating.
I was also a little disappointed with the language. The writing was so confused with double negatives, I had to keep rereading sentences.
While Sarah is mildly interesting, none of the characters are particularly likeable and by the end, I didn’t particularly care what happened to any of them.
So not so awesome after all.
More Like This: In the Victorian romance department I’d recommend some Thomas Hardy. Fowles references him constantly and Tess of the D’urbervilles is one of my absolute favourites. If you want to try some other Fowles, The Collector is excellent and deeply disturbing.
The Story: Princess Sophia is given a diary for her sixteenth birthday and begins to record observations about the Montmarvarian royal family and their dwindling number of subjects on the tiny, treacherous island of Montmaray. However, what begins as an entertaining account of her daily adventures and her indecision about whether or not she ought to visit London and find herself a husband, soon turns serious as civil war erupts in Spain, the Nazis gather power in Germany and Montmaray finds itself under siege in the lead up to the Second World War.
Why It’s Awesome: A Brief History of Montmaray reads like a fairytale full of quirky characters and jolly good adventures. There’s a mad king, a cunning servant, tomboy princesses and a handsome prince.
The island is marked by perilous cliffs, caves and chasms. There’s a castle, secret tunnels and a library tower.
Best of all, there are invaders to fight and family mysteries to be solved.
More Like This: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
i have JUST started this, but already I’m excited. I’ve got the gorgeous Knopf hardcover edition, and so far the story reads like a fairytale with attitude. Cannot wait to see where it goes!
The Story: On Gemma’s sixteenth birthday, her mother is brutally murdered in an Indian market place. Gemma is packed off to Spence, a Gothic finishing school in London where she find a mysterious diary and determines to discover her mother’s killer. Gemma also begins having strange visions and realises the answers she seeks may not lie in her world. She and her friends then set out on a dangerous quest for power and enlightenment.
Why its Awesome: Admittedly, it all sounds a bit far fetched. For a lot of readers, it will be. But if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, it’s a fun read with all the trappings of a good Gothic romance: gargoyles, swooning damsels, haunted woods and castles, a feisty heroine and a brooding hero hiding in the shadows.
More Like This: It’s part of a series and Libba Bray is prolific, so you won’t have any trouble getting more of her. A Great and Terrible Beauty reminded me of Kate Gordon’s Thyla, Lili St Crow’s Strange Angels and Claudia Gray’s Evernight. It’s definitely part of the paranormal craze in YA lit, but makes a refreshing change from all the vampires and werewolves.
My good friend Hazz recommended this one, and when I went looking for it, I realised it’s been on my shelf for years. Big mistake letting this one gather dust. A feisty heroine, a Gothic English boarding school, secret cliques, mysterious deaths and handsome, mysterious men brooding in the shadows. What more could a girl want? Best of all, it’s part of a series, so when I polish this one off there’ll still be plenty more to come.
The Story: Frank and April Wheeler may have two kids and live in the suburbs, but they’re not the average nuclear family. It’s all a big joke, see? A temporary solution until they set off on the daring, reckless life they’re surely destined to lead. They would have done it years ago, but April unexpectedly fell pregnant. No matter, there’s still plenty of time. In 1955, they’re finally ready to go. They’ve told the kids, organised the passports and put the house up for sale. But then Frank gets a promotion at work and April discovers she’s once again pregnant.
Revolutionary Road is a portrait of a marriage in turmoil and a story of bright young things slowly sinking into the quicksand of the American Dream.
Why It’s Awesome: It’s soul-sobbingly depressing, but that’s a good thing. Frank and April are completely messed up, monstrous even, but they’re incredibly real and their situation is incredibly real, too. They join the rat race as a joke, and now they can’t get out. They take their anger out on each other and slowly craft their self-destruction. It’s depressing for its commonality, with Yates capturing the mundane rhythms of suburban life that that so many people find themselves moving to.
This book won’t be for everybody. I don’t think I would have found it interesting when I was a teenager, but now in my mid-twenties it reads like my worst fears realised, and will probably be more poignant still in a few years time. It’s also probably one to stay away from if you’re not a fan of the tear jerkers. It starts bad and gets worse. But if you don’t mind a bit of a sob-fest, it’s an absolute masterpiece.
More Like This: The film adaptation is worth a look (I think it’s Leo’s best performance) and the story has parallels with Mad Men. In terms of books? Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Thematically, it also has a lot in common with some of Arthur Miller plays, particularly Death of a Salesman.
The Story: Taxi driver, Ed Kennedy, is always taking other people places, but he can’t seem to get anywhere himself. At nineteen he’s still living in the same small town he’s always lived in, playing cards and falling hopelessly in love with a girl who will go out with anyone but him.
Then there’s a bank robbery and Ed becomes an unlikely hero. Soon after, playing cards begin to arrive in the mail and Ed must decode decode the cryptic clues scrawled on them and start delivering messages.
Some of the messages are beautiful and heartwarming, others are downright terrifying and all of them are leading Ed towards a final message.
Why It’s Awesome: It’s a great story, warm and fuzzy with enough violence and tension that it doesn’t get sickly sweet. It’s full of clever little motifs and twists and, yes, it’s original.
Ed is an incredibly likeable character. He’s got a big heart and wants to make good, but doesn’t quite know how. He’s also got his demons and a quick tongue, which round him out and give the narration a sharp edge.
My only real criticism is the language. Sure it sounds beautiful, and some of it is genius, but there’s also a lot of clunky images and mixed metaphors going on. I’ve found in his other work as well, Zuzak reads like a writer with a colossal amount of natural talent, who’s never been formally trained.
Ha a habit.
It shits me.
But, look, I’m picky about this sort of thing. And the story is so good that this stuff is easy to overlook (really, I read all 400 pages in two sittings).
More Like This: Check out Zuzak’s The Book Thief. The story is very different, but I think it’s overall a better book, and it’s narrated by death, which in itself is reason enough to read it.
I also think Zuzak has a lot in common with Jonathan Safran Foer. They both come up with hugely imaginative plots that leave you wanting to go out and make the world a better place and they have a similarly self-conscious literary style.