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The Marriage Plot

by Jeffrey Eugenides

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, October 2011

Although novels for centuries have been grappling with the bitter realities of love and matrimony, The Marriage Plot only feels like a familiar story. In his excellent new novel, Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex) has managed to craft a story that is not only rooted in the classics but one that is deeply relevant to how we live and love today. In an early passage, Eugenides discusses the current state of romantic literature:

"Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if he could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer's marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? ...Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn't. You had to read historical fiction...you had to go, literally speaking, back in time."

In The Marriage Plot, Eugenides blends nostalgia and progression with masterful grace; it's a furious balance, and one achieved only by the finest of literary alchemists.
Set in the early Eighties, The Marriage Plot follows a handful of graduating seniors as they leave Brown University and drift uncertainly into adulthood. Although the pressures of professional life loom in the distance, Madeleine Hanna, "the lovelorn English major," is preoccupied with the two very different men in her life. Amateur theologian Mitchell Grammaticus and the handsome, brooding science major Leonard Bankhead pull Madeleine in two disparate directions, each showing Madeleine a potential future of love and intellectual fulfillment. Eventually Leonard proves to be the more alluring catch, but when Leonard's deeper psychological problems surface Madeleine finds herself stuck, in love with a man struggling with a dangerous level of depression. It's a classic setup, but these men and the humanity Eugenides fills them with make them much more than shadows of Darcy and Wickham.

Leonard and Mitchell are very different sorts of men, but both share one trait that heavily saturates The Marriage Plot: they're both wildly bright liberal arts students, and unfortunately both prone to over-intellectualizing the world with critical theory. Most of the novel takes place in college classrooms and resultantly drenches the text in heady intellectualism. The heavy leaning on academics will undoubtedly turn some readers away, but it is somewhat necessary to delve into to watch these students grow. In order to see Madeleine struggle with her peachy Victorian ideals, we have to take a semiotics class and a crash course in Roland Barthes:
"A Lovers Discourse was the perfect cure for lovesickness. It was a repair manual for the heart, its one tool of the brain. If you used your head, if you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental, if you recognize that being 'in love' was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny."

And it doesn't stop with Madeleine: to better understand Leonard's chemical imbalances, Eugenides corners us in Leonard's biology lab and his psychiatrist's office. The collegiate nature of the novel runs the risk of alienating those readers not yet familiar with such fields, and those who did experience similar discourse and drama will likely find these sections to be dazzlingly authentic, but ultimately cluttered.

Eugenides's use of the seminal Talking Heads song "Once if a Lifetime" as his novel's introductory quote proves doubly apt. David Byrne's lyrics evoke an existential crisis of sorts ("and you may ask yourself / how did I get here?") that is especially relevant to the novel's uncertain graduation class of 1982. Additionally, it seems Eugenides looked to this song to shape much of the narrative structure of The Marriage Plot. Scenes do not fade in or slowly unfold, but consistently open with an unfamiliar jolt, leaving readers to explore their origins through a lengthy, well-developed flashback.
When we first meet Madeleine, she's got a pillow over her had, a bad hangover, and a few hours until she marches in her graduation processional. Instead of looking to how she recovers, Eugenides instead shows how she reached this messy introduction. Eugenides works similarly with Mitchell, who is first seen meditating outside a bagel shop and is eventually rounded out by a recapitulation of his four previous years in the religion and philosophy department. It's a curious way to develop a plot, asking how we got here instead of where we're headed.

Although unconventional, this backtracking plot provides an outstanding look at all the novel's characters. Each person is so richly painted that it is very easy to lose sight of their Victorian archetypes, and as the novel progresses, these archetypes seem to fade away entirely. It begins to feel like the Victorian similarities are just a projection, no different than the idealistic literary slant that drives Madeleine towards each of her bad decisions. Leonard Bankhead isn't just a stormy, recast Mr. Darcy; he's far too real for such a label. The same goes for the rest of the novel's cast: these familiar characters are finally given lives. Eugenides works a genuine, relatable heartbeat into each of his characters, and through these compelling renderings is able to transcend his novel's framework.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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