Boys Writing About Girls

October 25, 2011, by

The other day I was telling a friend that I thought maybe Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot was a kind of feminist novel. As a reminder: Madeleine, a senior at Brown University, is trying to reconcile her adoration of Victorian novels that employ the marriage plot (an antiquated courtship narrative) with the changing landscape of literary criticism. In the midst of her academic consternations, she gets involved in a love triangle of her own with the enigmatic but depressive scientist, Leonard, and the geeky but tender religious studies major, Mitchell. The beautiful heroine, Madeleine, must choose between a man of science and a man of faith (a familiar plot trope we’ve seen as recently as the television show, Lost). I don’t want to give anything away about the ending of the novel, but Madeleine releases herself from that love triangle with a surprising epiphany that feels more third wave feminism than anything else.

How nice, I thought when I read it and closed the book. A novel where the heroine “wins” in spite of the men who love her, though not at their expense.

So I was telling my friend this and she asked if I’d read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom last year. I haven’t, but I know what it’s about—the troubled girlhood and college life of the character of Patty, and the love triangle she’s a part of. My friend thought it was interesting that both Freedom and The Marriage Plot are both recent celebrated novels about young women finding their way through romance and contemporary life, but that both of them were written by men.

We wondered over our brunch if the same praise would be lauded if women had written those novels. In fact, Ann Beattie’s latest new work (the novella, Walks With Men) is a chronicle of the love life of the twenty something Jane in 1980s Manhattan, and tackles similar issues: how to be young, how to be in love, how to make sense of the world. But Beattie’s novella wasn’t given nearly the same attention. It was, however, given a bright pink and black cover bearing a photograph of a woman’s naked back.

I don’t mean to say I think The Marriage Plot is doing anything wrong. I think it’s doing so many things right. Not only did I enjoy reading it, but I also thought it was smart. Really smart, unashamedly, thrillingly smart. I’m excited that it exists. I’m also excited to see someone like Jean Thompson or Joy Williams or Mary Gaitskill write the same kind of novel and get the same kind of consideration.