Once in a Lifetime

And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here? …
And you may tell yourself,
This is not my beautiful house.
And you may tell yourself

This is not my beautiful wife.

Once in a Lifetime, by The Talking Heads

I was a little apprehensive about cracking the spine of The Marriage Plot, fearing that Jeffrey Eugenides’ most recent novel would fail to live up to the legacies of the classic Virgin Suicides and the Pulitzer-winning Middlesex. Encouraged by positive book reviews and The Marriage Plot making several “Best of 2011” lists, I dove head-first into Eugenides’ third novel, which turned out to be one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Eugenides chronicles the complicated love story between main character, the beautiful, smart and wistfully romantic Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead (the boy she’s in love with) and Mitchell Grammaticus (the boy who’s in love with her; Mitchell Grammaticus is also the boy who I’m in love with).

In essence, the only common denominator these three main characters share is an intellect worthy of a Brown education in the early 80’s, which is where and when this novel takes place. I’ll try not to divulge too much about the characters or the plot of this novel in efforts to prevent spoiling the tale for any of you future readers, but I will point out some of the main elements of this book that made me fall in love with it.

  • Madeleine Hanna – I want to avoid calling Madeleine a hopeless romantic in the traditional sense; she is not the type that eats Bon-Bons and cries inconsolably during Chocolat and When Harry Met Sally. However, we find out very early in this book that Madeleine is indeed very romantic and constantly stuck in impossibly tragic situations. But rather than drowning herself in corny Nicholas Sparks films, Madeleine immerses herself in Jane Austen, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and other novels with classically beautiful marriage plots.As an accelerated English major, Madeleine not only reads and analyzes the complicated romances in classic literature, but she often evaluates her own relationships with her boyfriends, platonic friends and family members throughout the entire book. She’s one of those characters you hate for making irrational, emotional decisions despite her irrefutable intelligence, beauty and charm. And you love her for her irrefutable intelligence, beauty and charm. She’s the archetypal tragic hero, the one who allows love to dictate her life whether or not doing this is healthy, wise or what will ultimately make her happy.
  • Leonard Bankhead – Early in the story, we discover that this tall, brooding man is the object of Madeleine’s affections. He’s impossible for Madeleine (and the reader) to figure out, which adds to our fascination and insatiable intrigue with him. Leonard and Madeleine originate from completely different backgrounds and social classes (very Pride & Prejudice) and have one of those tumultuous relationships that’s dysfunctional, but passionate. Beyond repair, but worth fighting for. Contrary to what you may deduce from this review, Leonard is not the bad guy. In fact, he’s quite likeable. Leonard’s just a handful and Euginedes describes the blessing and burden of being his girlfriend beautifully from Madeleine’s point of view.
  • Mitchell Grammaticus – I’m in love with Mitchell Grammaticus. What’s not to love about a character named Mitchell Grammaticus? That beautiful, multisyllabic Greek name reserved only for insightful, charming and kind Religious Studies majors. In the book, his path to self-discovery leads him to visit foreign countries and experiment with different religions, but his journey always leads back to Madeleine Hanna. His love and adoration of her is so pure and unadulterated, it’s impossible not to identify with his frustrations and longing for her. For me, the saddest part of this entire book was accepting the undeniable realization that Mitchell Grammaticus was fictional.

My favorite part of this book was how Euginedes weaved so many of my favorite stories into his own. I love Jane Austen and Anna Karenina. I love the 80’s (even though I was only alive for the tail end of that decade) I love the Talking Heads and I love my favorite book, which is an integral part of Mitchell’s character (Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger). I also love marriage plots. I have a weakness for confused characters with equally convoluted feelings for eachother. It’s the stuff The Smiths and Morrissey write about.

Perhaps I’m a hopeless romantic too. Single partly because I want to be, but also because of the inner-conflicts that Madeleine and girls all over the world have faced for centuries. Do you love the one who got away? Or do you love the one you’ve always had? Or is it better not to love at all?

I don’t think this book is for everyone, but I do think that it’s fantastic. I also will be forever indebted to Jeffrey Euginedes for introducing me to Mitchell Grammaticus, the smart, handsome boy I will aspire to find one day.

The Talking Heads – Once in a Lifetime (Virgin Magnet Material Remix)


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