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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Marriage Plot

Jeffrey Eugenides

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To purchase The Marriage Plot

Title: The Marriage Plot
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 406 pages
Availability: The Marriage Plot - US
The Marriage Plot - UK
The Marriage Plot - Canada
The Marriage Plot - India
Die Liebeshandlung - Deutschland
La trama del matrimonio - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B- : some decent parts (and some less so), but never comes together

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Review . 11-12/2011 Leland de la Durantaye
Corriere della Sera . 13/10/2011 Paolo Giordano
The Economist . 15/10/2011 .
Entertainment Weekly B 11/10/2011 Leah Greenblatt
Evening Standard . 29/9/2011 Jerome Boyd Maunsell
Financial Times B- 7/10/2011 Peter Aspden
FAZ . 26/10/2011 Felicitas von Lovenberg
The Guardian C 12/10/2011 James Lasdun
The Independent . 30/9/2011 Nat Segnit
Independent on Sunday . 16/10/2011 Katy Guest
London Rev. of Books . 6/10/2011 Christopher R. Beha
The LA Times . 9/10/2011 Carolyn Kellogg
The Nation . 12/12/2011 Alexandra Schwartz
The National . 14/10/2011 Anthony Cummins
NZZ . 22/2/2012 Michael Schmitt
The New Republic . 9/11/2011 Ruth Franklin
New Statesman . 10/10/2011 Leo Robson
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/11/2011 Michael Greenberg
The NY Times . 7/10/2011 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/10/2011 William Deresiewicz
The Observer . 30/9/2011 Tim Adams
San Francisco Chronicle B 16/10/2011 Dan Cryer
The Spectator . 5/11/2011 Ian Sansom
The Telegraph . 11/10/2011 Lucy Daniel
The Telegraph . 13/10/2011 Catherine Taylor
TLS . 12/10/2011 Edmund Gordon
USA Today . 10/10/2011 David Daley
Wall Street Journal . 8/10/2011 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post A- 11/10/2011 Ron Charles
Die Zeit . 27/10/2011 Ulrich Greiner

  Review Consensus:

  No real consensus; differing opinions about what he does and doesn't do well

  From the Reviews:
  • "I think it best if I say the following simply and clearly: I was disappointed by The Marriage Plot. The root cause of this disappointment is the pleasure -- the great and renewed pleasure -- Iíve had reading Eugenidesís earlier novels. (...) For so funny a writer, The Marriage Plot is not very funny, and for so daring a one it is not very daring." - Leland de la Durantaye, Boston Review

  • "Ci va un certo coraggio per sballottare i propri personaggi fra contesti così dissimili e JE ce l'ha senz'altro. La trama del matrimonio riesce a disporre in una sequenza ordinata tutta la confusione che caratterizza le età di passaggio." - Paolo Giordano, Corriere della Sera

  • "The latest Eugenides is a very good novel, one that we defy anyone not to devour. It is just, not quite, a great novel, being a little too conventional for that." - The Economist

  • "Plot's story line wobbles and ultimately loses its way. Still, there are serious pleasures here for people who love to read: diamond-sharp observations and dazzling sentences that nearly justify the nine-year wait" - Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly

  • "The Marriage Plot lacks the distinctiveness of Eugenides's earlier books. The "marriage plot" itself is its flimsiest suit. Yet if it doesn't have such clear definition, that's not a bad thing, and it remains highly enjoyable. Its main success is the extended depiction of the three young figures on the cusp of adulthood, grappling with the wider world, and the oddly stressful weightlessness of a phase before life hardens and takes shape." - Jerome Boyd Maunsell, Evening Standard

  • "Eugenidesís meta-narrative tease is almost as engrossing as his plot: can we update those complex, emotionally absorbing classic novels for the contemporary era? Or have we been forever diverted by the conceits of literary modernism and its attendant disruptions of narrative form ? It is a bold stab, rather than an unqualified triumph. (...) The resolution is not neat but neither is it profound. Likeable as it is, there is a reason why the novels of 2011 do not centre around marriage proposals and tragically unopened letters." - Peter Aspden, Financial Times

  • "Der Charme des gerade im amerikanischen Original wie in -- vorzüglicher -- deutscher Übersetzung erschienenen neuen Buches von Eugenides liegt vor allem darin, wie er all diese Elemente zusammenbringt, die klassische Konstellation in Zeit von sexueller Freiheit, Eheverträgen und Scheidungen aktuell macht, ohne ihre der Tradition geschuldeten Qualitäten zu mindern." - Felicitas von Lovenberg, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "It's customary to cheer when an author moves outside his comfort zone, but I'm not sure it was such a great idea in this case. In tilting the focus so emphatically towards the wholesome and ordinary, Eugenides seems to have restricted his access to his own considerable powers. The lively intelligence of the earlier books has little to grapple with in these mostly unremarkable characters as they make their intellectual and geographic grand tours, and consequently much of the writing veers between effortful smartness and a kind of half-hearted blah. (...) What do we ever really know about these three ? (...) But information isn't the same as insight, and it seems to me that a couple of crucial things are missing." - James Lasdun, The Guardian

  • "Eugenides clearly knows his theory, and the first third of The Marriage Plot constitutes a sort of campus novella, in which the love triangle is lucidly contextualised in the intellectual fashions of the time. What's striking is how little those fashions appear to have influenced the novel's composition. For a story quite so preoccupied, at least on the surface, with deconstruction and defamiliarisation, The Marriage Plot is sedulously unplayful" - Nat Segnit, The Independent

  • "The novel rushes onward in Eugenides' trademark style, full of looping-back explanations and sharp dialogue (.....) Eugenides takes many risks. (...) All of this makes the book a remarkable achievement." - Katy Guest, Independent on Sunday

  • "Last year, Franzen's Freedom was a bestseller; like The Marriage Plot, it's a robust, rich story of adults in a love triangle. Eugenides benefits by the comparison: This book is sweeter, kinder, with a more generous heart. What's more, it is layered with exactly the kinds of things that people who love novels will love." - Carolyn Kellogg, The Los Angeles Times

  • "In The Marriage Plot, Eugenides has abandoned his literary fathers once and for all in favor of the mother of modern fiction. This time around, he pays his respects to the themes and form of the nineteenth-century novel, tracing the murky mating rituals of a group of young adults at the end of the twentieth century. (...) Then again, I have trouble believing much of what Eugenides has to say about his characters. Itís not that he doesnít say enough. The Marriage Plot is stuffed with motivations, revelations, convenient historical tidbits and childhood back stories" - Alexandra Schwartz, The Nation

  • "Stylistically, control is the watchword. Period markers (Hill Street Blues, Chris Evert, the Walkman) are rare and unobtrusive, defying the trend for Eighties-set novels to liberally scatter cultural references. (...) There are longueurs." - Anthony Cummins, The National

  • "Aber das alles zündet nicht, die Erzählung wirkt leblos, von Beginn an theoretisch überformt wie ein Versuch im Reagenzglas. (...) Fahrig skizzierend, manchmal geradezu referatartig beschreibt der Roman die Orte oder die Seelenlagen seiner Helden, so, als sei er nicht wirklich an ihnen interessiert." - Michael Schmitt, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "It is a big book of tricks but, for all its dazzling dexterity, flat. (...) Eugenides, it appears, is out to charm. Whether he succeeds will depend on the reader's susceptibility to his brand of pith, which is everywhere in evidence (.....) Eugenides is a virtuoso, no doubt about it, and everything in this ill-conceived novel has worked out just as he intended." - Leo Robson, New Statesman

  • "(A)s a realist he isn't always persuasive. The weakest, most predictable parts of The Marriage Plot are the ones that revolve around Leonard's illness. The psychiatric ward is presented with just enough borrowed detail to have a rushed, CliffsNotes authenticity." - Michael Greenberg, The New York Review of Books

  • "Itís in mapping Mitchellís search for some sort of belief that might fill the spiritual hole in his heart and Madeleineís search for a way to turn her passion for literature into a vocation that this novel is at its most affecting, reminding us with uncommon understanding what it is to be young and idealistic, in pursuit of true love and in love with books and ideas." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "There is a marriage, and a kind of anti-proposal, and Madeleine studies the Victorian novelists (...), but the novel isnít really concerned with matrimony or the stories we tell about it, and the title, the opening glance at Madeleineís library and the intermittent talk of books come across as attempts to impose an exogenous meaning. The novel isnít really about love either, except secondarily. Itís about what Eugenidesís books are always about, no matter how they differ: the drama of coming of age." - William Deresiewicz, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The tight plotting and internalised psychology of this new novel, allied to the full sweep of ideas and social observation and quiet comedy that characterised Eugenides's earlier works, are signs of a new maturity. (...) As he delineates these fracturing lives, Eugenides also pursues cogent inquiries into religion and philosophy and sexuality as his young trio try to make sense of things." - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "Eugenides' fluid prose is capable of summoning up worlds as disparate as Calcutta streets, biology labs, dysfunctional families, hospital mental wards or undergraduate parties. He paints striking contrasting portraits of a fiercely rigorous religion scholar and an English professor whose slack-jawed infatuation with semiotics is likened to a midlife adulterous fling. (...) For all its strengths, however, this leisurely told novel doesn't entirely satisfy. (...) Scene after scene ought to be trimmed, instead of stalling narrative momentum and making its 400-plus pages seem even longer. Dickens and Austen, those efficient storytellers, knew better." - Dan Cryer, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "As we all know, books are often, in a way, about books, but The Marriage Plot is actually about books (...) The whole book, then, is rich and dense in colour and in tone ó like a vast woven tapestry. If you look closely enough, everything is here. Europe, Asia, America. No detail too small. No incident un-noticed." - Ian Sansom, The Spectator

  • "Madeleine unfortunately gets less, not more, interesting as the novel continues. By contrast, Leonardís manic depression is involving, and Mitchell becomes a curmudgeonly hero. (...) Being Eugenides, the book is immensely readable, funny and heartfelt, with instantly beguiling writing that springs effortlessly back and forth over the yearís events." - Lucy Daniel, The Telegraph

  • "A marvellous, compulsive storyteller, richly allusive, he reminds us that while love may not always triumph, it follows its own wayward course to the end." - Catherine Taylor, The Telegraph

  • "The prose here is relaxed -- almost indecently so in comparison to Eugenidesís first two books, and sometimes by any standards to the point of laziness (...) -- but fuelled by just enough hard-working detail to keep it buoyant (.....) Except that, in an important sense, Eugenides cheats: his apparent bravery in acknowledging the anachronistic nature of his project is undermined by the very fact of that acknowledgement. Such a closely controlled experiment stands no real risk of failure." - Edmund Gordon, Times Literary Supplement

  • "And when the characters all come together at the end, at a party in New York, there's nothing inevitable or forced about the resolution of this marriage plot. Perhaps that's the biggest triumph in a novel filled with them -- an entirely new and satisfying way for a love story to end." - David Daley, USA Today

  • "One of Mr. Eugenides's many subtle tricks in The Marriage Plot is to make these three characters embody the ideas that disable them. (...) But ultimately, Mr. Eugenides toys with high-gloss literary concepts like these for the purpose of rejecting them. The Marriage Plot invokes the theories of postmodernism in order to stuff them back into the bottle that the 20th century uncorked. (...) It is in developing a story that The Marriage Plot encounters problems, because when Mr. Eugenides leaves behind collegiate jeu d'esprit and advances to more adult subjects like illness, marriage and religious faith he is far less assured. (...) The glibness of the storytelling in The Marriage Plot seems gimmicky -- in a book assailing literary gimmickry." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "If Eugenidesís parody of French literary theory sometimes feels as fresh as the Reagan administration, we can forgive him because heís so in≠cred≠ibly good at it. (...) These later sections are not as compelling, although the portrayal of life with a manic-depressive is distressing enough to shred anyoneís 19th-century illusions of romance. Eugenides is frighteningly perceptive about the challenges of mental illness" - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

  • "Eugenides richtet seinen flau-ironischen Blick wie mit einem Fernrohr auf Menschen, mit denen er eigentlich nichts zu tun hat." - Ulrich Greiner, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot concludes with a wonderful closing scene, in which one character asks another about the plots of novels, describing a specific scenario and wondering: "Is there any book that ends like that ?" They can't think of any -- but agree that it would be a good plot and ending. The scene comes as a great relief: suddenly, finally, after four hundred often tiresome pages it becomes clear: so that's what Eugenides was trying to do. That's what he was after.
       Yes, Eugenides had a pretty good idea for a book -- and clearly knew exactly what the ending would be -- but instead of writing that book he put together The Marriage Plot. Oh, sure, the plot is still there -- as is, obviously, the ending -- but the novel simply isn't a very good version of either. Worse yet, Eugenides has, in fact, pieced together something in order to be able to reach this conclusion, and while many parts and details are just fine, the bigger picture does not add up to much of a novel. With the ends always in sight, Eugenides never gave a story a proper chance of developing. There's some decent fun along the way in The Marriage Plot, but on the whole it's a true clunker.
       The Marriage Plot begins at Brown University, on graduation day 1982 (Eugenides himself graduated from that institution in 1983 -- as did this reviewer, in 1985). Among those graduating is Madeleine Hanna, who is not so sure about her future -- but, for now, willing to hitch her wagon to her boyfriend, the brilliant but mentally ill Leonard Bankhead. Also, not quite in the picture, is old friend Mitchell Grammaticus, whose search for himself is taking a more conventional path: he's leaning towards pursuing religious studies further, and meanwhile is planning on heading to Europe and India in the fall (after working over the summer to earn some cash for the trip).
       When Mitchell eventually reaches Calcutta -- where he tries to lend a hand at Mother Theresa's -- three-quarters of the way through the book, the narrator sums up:

As it was, the whole thing was beginning to look fairly comical and Shakespearean: Larry loved Mitchell, who loved Madeleine, who loved Leonard Bankhead. Being alone, in the poorest city on earth, where he didn't know anyone, pay phones were nonexistent, and mail service slow, didn't end this romantic farce, but it got Mitchell offstage
       One of the oddities of the novel is how much is shoved more or less offstage. There's limited interaction between Mitchell and Madeleine for most of the novel, and their relationship is woefully underdeveloped and never feels particularly convincing. For most of the novel, he is far apart from Madeleine and Leonard. The narrative approach, too, is an off-stage one, as the omniscient narrator repeatedly focuses in on the immediacy of the here and now (most obviously right at the start of the novel), and only gradually fills in pieces from the past -- the characters' family and personal histories, and their relationships. Even the most significant event near the conclusion of the book happens off-stage: readers suddenly find time has passed and the situation has changed, and only then come the flashbacks filling in the significant missing pieces. It's a defensible technique, but an author should have a pretty good reason for deploying it; Eugenides' isn't good enough.
       As to this story being Shakespearean -- hardly. Eugenides' approach to love is adolescent rather than young-adult: people pine over other people, but there's little sense of any real emotional attachment between them -- or even plain lust. (There is a fair amount of lusting; it's just pretty unconvincing, and does not connect with the relationships meaningfully.) The incidental character of Larry is typical, apparently thrown in just so that poor Mitchell (who is, like Eugenides, a Greek boy from Detroit) doesn't go entirely unlusted after.
       Eugenides does have a few solid threads running through the text, some of which are more successful than others. First, there's a love of literature: the book opens with a sweeping look over Madeleine's college bookshelves -- indeed, the book begins insisting:
     To start with, look at all the books.
       Since the narrator holds the camera -- which then slowly sweeps across the bookshelves, across Henry James, Dickens, Trollope, etc. -- the suggestion is unnecessary: the narrator forces the reader to 'look at all the books'. Yes, Madeleine is of the bookish sort -- and fascinated by a certain era, too: the narrator insists that this personal library reveals her to clearly be: "Incurably Romantic". (Readers might remain suspicious at this all too easy conclusion, offered before the first page is finished; manipulative narrators are, of course, a dime a dozen -- but this one may well strike many readers as unfairly so when it is only hundreds of pages later that another bookish side to Madeleine is revealed, recounting how when the family had moved and she wasn't acclimating well her mother surprised her by wallpapering her room -- in a way that then allowed Madeleine to literally grow up in a fictional world; how much better if that information had been revealed earlier, saving until later only the devastating: "Nobody had wallpaper like hers. Which was why, as she grew up on Wilson Lane, Madeleine had never torn it down.")
       Madeleine was an English major, and Eugenides has good fun with her dipping her toes into the semiotic craze sweeping literary studies at the time, led by Robert Scholes-stand-in Michael Zipperstein (whose name -- semiotically, no doubt -- also echoes and brings to mind David Lodge's Maurice Zapp). The romantic in her is drawn to some of the semiotic spouting -- but, of course, it's only something like Barthes' A Lover's Discourse that really does the trick. But the pull of the Victorians and Jane Austen win out, the defining course she takes an honors seminar on 'The Marriage Plot: Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot, and James', for which she writes a paper on 'The Interrogative Mood: Marriage Proposals and the (Strictly Limited) Sphere of the Feminine', which becomes her senior honors thesis, and which she triumphantly eventually publishes in different form in The Janeite Review, as 'I Thought You'd Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot'. (In a beautiful touch -- Eugenides does have a great eye for some detail -- when Madeleine finally gets copies of the publication: "It was a marvelous thing to see, even though a printing error had transposed two pages of the essay.")
       Yes, Madeleine is rather an old fashioned gal -- and while she is looking towards graduate school and maybe the future, clearly in the back of her mind what she's really fishing for is a marriage proposal.
       Suitor A, Mitchell, doesn't seem to be the one she's looking for -- and, conveniently out of the way (continents away) for much of the time in question, can't really make his case too well. But then he's trying to find himself, and faith, so he has a lot on his mind anyway.
       Suitor B is Leonard, a college star who has, unfortunately, rather burned out: hit hard by manic depression he can only function when medicated -- and he doesn't like the way he functions when medicated, or what the drugs do to him. Just as Mitchell tries to help out at Mother Theresa's -- but can't really get over the messiness of diseased bodies -- Madeleine gamely tries to be supportive of Leonard, doing her best to support him.
       Love is a strange thing, and of course people often act selflessly, but neither Madeleine's supposed passion for Leonard, nor her willingness to put up with this guy -- who is not easy or pleasant to live with (or, one would guess, even just be around) -- is ever in the least convincingly presented. Which is kind of a problem in what is, on some level(s), meant to be a love story, of sorts.
       Leonard's illness does allow Eugenides to wallow in ... Leonard's illness, and some readers may have more patience for this kind of thing than I do -- protagonists in the throes of mental illness or alcohol or drug abuse are almost invariably of no interest to me, the anything-goes irrationality to their behavior that writers like to wallow in (and, boy, does Eugenides wallow) quickly getting tiresome -- but in concentrating so on Leonard's symptoms and actions too much of Madeleine is lost. Leonard comes across neither as her 'true love', nor as some weird phase she's going through; Eugenides seems to stick them together because he seems to think that makes for an interesting plot -- and the 'solution' he offers to resolve their relationship seems a cop-out too (with, yet again, much of that particularly story shoved off-stage, as readers only get to see it from one perspective). As also happens with so many writers who employ mentally ill protagonists, Eugenides winds up not knowing what to do with the character; in a complete cop-out (one of several in the novel) he literally abandons Leonard at the end of the novel.
       Looking around, Madeleine might also notice that marriage maybe isn't all it's cracked up to be -- that after that tying-of-the-knot, when the story is over, things don't necessarily work out for the best. She's gotten a hint of that from her reading, but it doesn't seem to have really taken. And reality has certainly not taken: Leonard's parents are divorced, while Madeleine's own parents are a perfect couple of sorts, double-teaming her, but certainly not what she hopes to become. And then there's her sister, who has just had a baby but whose marriage is on the verge of collapse -- with a healthy contribution from both partners.
       All the characters take many of their cues from writing. Madeleine is, of course, worst of all. As one of her roommates complains:
You and your Lover's Discourse. Give me a break ! You know that line you're always quoting ? About how nobody would fall in love unless they read about it first ? Well, all you do is read about it.
       But Madeleine's ill-conceived experiment in loving Leonard -- and it feels a hell of a lot like an experiment rather than actual love -- suggests that Madeleine is far better off in her fantasy-world of unreality. Tellingly, one of the few times she blossoms, and is actually happy, is when she escapes from Leonard and attends a conference on Victorian literature, where she fits right in and has a blast. Tellingly, too, the reason for them breaking up at college -- recounted in a fill-in flashback, and before she hooks up with him again -- was that he cruelly used the words of her book (yes, the Barthes) against her, pointing her to the passage: "Once the first avowal has been made, 'I love you' has no meaning whatever". At that point she's just hurt and angry; surely, however, she should have realized then and there that this was not the guy for her.
       Both Leonard and Mitchell are intellectual; they're both smart, even if Mitchell is wasting his time in spiritual self-evaluation -- no wonder he gets nowhere. Leonard tries to pursue science, but his mental illness proves a big hurdle -- and he too winds up going nowhere. Still, along the way Eugenides uses their quests to offer some entertaining scenes. Much of the discussion here is on a level more serious than the usual young adult novel allows for, from a realistic classroom discussion of Handke's A Sorrow Beyond Dreams to a variety of discussions of religious experience (Among the clever subtexts in the novel: the trio clearly follow in the footsteps of the Jamess, whom they resemble: Madeleine with her complete edition of Henry, Mitchell's William-like quest, and Leonard the debilitated Alice.)
       Both the boys are concerned about money -- there's very frequent talk about not having enough -- but Madeleine comes from a wealthy family; oddly, in the end, both boys also wind up relying, one way or another, on dad's largesse -- one of several old-fashioned elements (marrying for money) in the novel. Set in the early 1980s, The Marriage Plot is to only a small extent a novel of its times. There are cultural and political markers -- quite nicely integrated into the text -- and there's no such thing as the Internet or e-mail yet -- significant as it allows Eugenides to turn his characters into letter-writers; in best Victorian style a missing letter ultimately also figures in the story's outcome. Indeed, the novel feels old-fashioned in an entirely different way -- less a novel of the 1980s than a failed Victorian one.
       In another way, too, the novel is stuck in time, as Eugenides seems stuck in the college-graduation-age-uncertainty, not allowing his characters any real future yet. Indeed, at the end of the novel only one character even has so much as convincingly concrete plans (and those too involve putting real life on hold). This wouldn't necessarily be a problem but for the fact that Eugenides has made a very adult and future-defining step -- marriage -- so central to his novel. Or rather he tried to. As is, marriage here is entirely unconvincing. The characters are not ready for it, and they are certainly not in a position to begin 'married life'; indeed, the only realistic thing about that aspect of the novel is that they do come to their senses (and their madness) and take a step back.
       There are a lot of fine parts to The Marriage Plot: episodes from the characters' lives, many of the individual scenes, beautifully observed details and vivid descriptions. But with his eyes constantly on the prize -- that great plot idea -- Eugenides lost control over the story itself, and just couldn't piece it together well enough.
       The Marriage Plot is certainly readable, but also very frustrating, and deeply disappointing.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 January 2012

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The Marriage Plot: Reviews: Jeffrey Eugenides: Other books Jeffrey Eugenides under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       American author Jeffrey Eugenides was born in 1960.

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© 2012 the complete review

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