Schillinger, Liesl, Newsweek
Byline: Liesl Schillinger; Schillinger is a New York-based literary critic.
Middlesex author Jeffrey Eugenides on his new novel, sexual politics, and the perils of literary fame.
In 1982, when he was 21, living in India and volunteering at Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying, Jeffrey Eugenides wrote letters home to Grosse Pointe, Mich., filled with parent-pleasing tidings like the fact that leprosy wasn't all that easy to catch. "You feel pretty invulnerable when you're that age," he recalled recently in Princeton, where he lives with his wife and daughter in an airy, book-lined Tudor house. At the time, he was caught up in an altruistic quest "to see if you could actually live your life doing things for others in a saintly way." To his parents, the virtue of this goal was not necessarily apparent. "I sent a lot of letters that really alarmed my mother in those days, and now I understand--as a parent myself--how awful it must have been for her."
Thirty years on, that correspondence emerges in the author's long-awaited third novel, The Marriage Plot, in the aerograms his Greek-American protagonist, Mitchell Grammaticus, sends home from Calcutta during his postcollegiate Wanderjahr. In the book, Eugenides delves into the psychology of three college seniors (who, like the author, went to Brown) as they graduate in 1982 into a recession and a love triangle. There's Mitchell, who loves Christian mysticism and his classmate Madeleine Hanna; Madeleine, who loves romantic idealism and her classmate Leonard Bankhead; and Leonard, a polymathic biology student and manic-depressive who loves lithium. And while The Marriage Plot is Eugenides's most realistic novel yet, he cautioned, "calling a book realistic sometimes masks the extent to which an author has to find new solutions to express people's thought processes and emotions."
A month before the book's release, the author met me at the picturesque Princeton train station. Though he's 51, he looks a decade younger; and though he's lived in Princeton for four years, writing and teaching among literary heavy hitters like Joyce Carol Oates and Edmund White, he gives off a European air--a whiff of Berlin. He lived there with his family for five years while writing his last novel, Middlesex (2002), which won the Pulitzer Prize and has sold more than 3 million copies (with a boost from Oprah). It was also in Berlin that he began The Marriage Plot.
Eugenides's first novel, The Virgin Suicides (1993), was told from a male perspective; and Middlesex was more about plot than voice, he says. But in The Marriage Plot he gives each character a distinct, gendered voice--including Madeleine. "Most of the things Madeleine has felt, I have felt," he said. "I don't usually start with the idea that women's experience is so different." But for Mitchell Grammaticus, who resembles the author more than any character in his previous books, the similarities are even more striking. "My friends from college will recognize me," he says. But The Marriage Plot is not a memoir.
"I don't think people can really write autobiography," Eugenides said. …