The Bone Clocks

9781400065677_p0_v2_s260x420The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell is one crazy novel.  With all the hype about this new book, I was determined to get through it, but the sudden plot changes had me confused and anxious.    Pico Iyer’s review in the New York Times helped: “You may not believe in telepathy, second sight or reincarnation, but if you enter Mitchell’s universe you can’t not believe in them either.”

The story begins with teenage Holly Sykes running away from home to escape a mother who doesn’t understand her and a boyfriend who has betrayed her.  Her plan is to stay away just long enough to make them miss her.  According to Iyer’s review, Holly jumps forward from 1984 to 1991, 2004, 2015, and far into 2025, before the apocalypse in 2043.  I never made it past 1991.  Although Mitchell may be a great writer and the book is long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Iyer’s review convinced me the 624 pages were too much for me.  I downloaded the book to my iPad; maybe I’ll tackle it again later.

Have you read it yet?

Iyer’s Review of The Bone Clocks – “Juggling Worlds”

The Marriage Plot

Novels that follow a romantic formula are comfortable and predictable.  You know what to expect – the plot involves “the suitors, the proposals, the misunderstandings, the wedding” (think Jane Austen).  In The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides injects realism into that familiar narrative to examine the lives of a love triangle destined to fail, and the coming of age of three angst-ridden college students in the eighties.

Eugenides opens the story in the middle of the action – graduation day at Brown University, backtracking to explain how his characters have come to this point – a little disconcerting because the effect of the dialogue seems to have no cause, at first.  He uses this device repeatedly in the story to reveal each character’s motivation and their reactions to each other.  As the lives of Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell unravel, their anxieties are overbearing, and the trials of college life and their subsequent life decisions after graduation become the focus.

Madeleine, an English major and the daughter of a former college President recalls her college years and her relationships with two men, as well as a few other peripheral characters, as she prepares for graduation.  She met Mitchell, a religion major, at a freshman mixer, and he immediately fell in love with her.  Leonard, a cool mysterious science major, entered her life through a semiotics seminar that will test your patience.

A sign that only means that it means.

Eugenides uses the class to showcase critical analysis of literature; former English majors will cringe remembering the never-ending cycles of symbolic representation possibilities.  The author acknowledges his overbearing farce, having Madeleine looking for a book with a story that will “restore her sanity.”  You may feel the same.

Following the formula, Mitchell is the “normal guy,”  and Leonard the passionate alternative, especially after he goes off his meds and lands in the psych ward for a while. Undeterred, Madeleine pursues Leonard to nurse him back to mental health – somewhat at her own expense, while Mitchell goes off to see the world in that popular year of travel after graduation – still hoping Madeleine will come to her senses and pick him. Mitchell plans to see India, by way of Europe, of course.

Throughout the unmerciful introspection, Eugenides cleverly has all three characters following the “plot,” while he subliminally ridicules yet sympathizes with their actions.  After graduation, while Leonard is fighting his lithium demons and Madeleine is applying to graduate school, Mitchell finds Mother Teresa in India.  They keep looking for something – just out of reach, and eventually all meet again.

A college professor once berated me for not recognizing that Maugham had more to say in Of Human Bondage; perhaps Eugenides is testing the reader with his tease of a simple story complicated with underlying symbolism.  No matter – if you persevere, you may find a few thoughtful phrases that touch your own life; maybe references to Thomas Merton will make you feel that you are improving your intellect.  In a Conversation about this book with novelist Colm Toibin, published in the New York Times, Jeffrey Eugenides offered this insight…

We know that we might be “mocked” for persisting in writing realist fiction. But we keep on doing it! Because we think there is something about reality, and especially about human consciousness, that can be accurately described and that the novel is the best way to do it.

Or you may just meander through the story of three characters – a smart pretty girl, her pining friend, and a clinically depressed lover –  who end up as they realistically would, not romantically should – as many do these days.