Let me start out the review by saying that I enjoyed this book very much. I found some of the incidents and thoughts enlightening, some aggravating; some of the characters endearing, some annoying; in short, it was a good blend of event and person. While nothing much really happens in the book, everything possible important happens. And that is, perhaps, the source of my greatest disappointment--the ending. I don't get Portrait of a Lady, which, it seems, is what I was heading for. But nowadays, Portrait of a Lady is impossible because divorce is not so unthinkable--indeed, divorce appears to be the first recourse when anything gets to be a little difficult. I did not get Anna Karenina (although I'm sure that Eugenides referred to it more than obliquely in more than one scene). No, I got what seemed to me like a lame sort of Casablanca ending. You know, "We'll always have Paris. . ."
And that's a shame because otherwise this was a compelling, interesting, fascinating look at very intelligent people making mostly very poor choices. Three post college students form a romantic triangle. One of them a manic-depressive, two of them children of privilege--one of whom is a seeker, the other of whom aims to become a Victorianist even though that would exclude from her realm of study her favorite author--Jane Austen.
Our heroine falls in love with the manic-depressive and so the story unwinds as she determines the path she must take. This, my friends, is the downside of Beauty and Beast. The belief that we can take the intractably ugly and transform it into something lovely through love. (The upside of Beauty and the Beast is that ugliness is merely surface and if you can see below that surface, then it is possible to bring out the loveliness intrinsic to all things.) But the harsh reality is that one can't help whom one falls in love with and if that whom happens to be a manic depressive who has a cruel streak a mile wide, you're in for one unpleasant ride.
What then is the end of it? Well, you'll have to read to discover that. Eugenides makes reference to and mines classic works of literature throughout. Some references oblique, others quite clearly pointing to forebears. Expect to see the panoply of novels that deal with the married state and living in that state.
The prose of the book is, at times, quite lovely. The story itself compelling up until its entirely unsatisfactory end. To be honest, it was very clear throughout that this end was coming; however, it still did not seem inevitable. That is, I was not convinced by the plight of the heroine nor by the choice made, at least in the near term. I didn't make logical or emotional sense in any clear way--at least not to this reader.
So, the disappointing ending aside, the book was an interesting study of what it means to be in love, what it means to have a passion, and what it means to have all of the options open to us today.