Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights. After getting out of Semiotics 211, Madeleine fled to the Rockefeller Library, down to B Level, where the stacks exuded a vivifying smell of mold, and grabbed something – anything, The House of Mirth, Daniel Deronda – to restore herself to sanity. How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a 19th century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world. Then, too, there were lots of weddings in Wharton and Austen. There were all kinds of irresistible gloomy men.
The next Thursday, Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design. She’d gone back to her glasses. For the second week in a row, Leonard didn’t show up.
observations: I’ve not read his other books, and apparently this one is very different. It was certainly readable (I polished off its 400 pages over the course of a long journey) and not objectionable, but I was surprised by its earnest shallowness and its similarity to David Nicholls’ massive bestseller, One Day, published a year or so earlier and then made into a film with Anne Hathaway. There’s no question of plagiarism, but it’s odd that they coincide in plot. Both men were born in the 1960s, and I want to ask Eugenides, in particular, why are you writing about undergraduate students, and then their post-graduation travels and troubles? They are about as interesting as real-live students would be if you asked them to tell you about their courses. The book is full of long descriptions of classes the protagonists take, and they certainly made this reader very impatient. (I did wonder if this was a book that Eugenides wrote, or perhaps started, when he was nearer the age of the characters…)
The extract above explains neatly the way in which literature studies had changed in that time, and says it very convincingly: but then Eugenides goes on and on and on about it, diving into theology and other religious studies as well. (‘What if you died and went to heaven and all the people you met there were people you didn’t like?’) The book kept nearly turning into something more interesting, and there were lovely bits.
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.This is a random couple of sentences, never referred to again:
During the Cold War, Irina Kolnoskova, second ballerina of the Kirov Ballet, had stayed in hiding at the Pleshettes’ house, in Riverdale, after defecting. Larry, only fifteen at the time, had ferried champagne splits and graham crackers to the ballerina’s bedside, where Kolnoskova alternately wept, watched game shows, or coaxed him to massage her young, spectacularly deformed feet.I think that’s the novel I actually wanted to read.
However, Eugenides is very good on clothes. Madeleine, ‘failed Bohemian’, realizes that being out of college means she can now dress comfortably like a Kennedy on Cape Cod: earlier her boyfriend criticized the way she wore a vintage bowling shirt. Leonard looks ‘large and shaggy, like a Sendak creature’:
The sweater at the top is not Norwegian, but it is a design by the great knitting guru of the 1980s, Kaffe Fassett, styled fully in the manner of the era.
Daniel Deronda has featured on the blog, twice. Clothes in Books did a deep and fully-researched entry dealing with literary theory here. (Note the date.)