To say that Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest novel, The Marriage Plot, has an air of pretension would probably be an understatement. It revolves around the lives of Brown University students. Pages upon pages are devoted to literary criticism, semiotics, religious theory, and biology. One of the main characters, an intelligent man battling manic depression, wallows in narcissistic self-examination. Post-graduation, the characters go off and do what the progeny of rich, white east coasters did in the late 1970s: traveled abroad.
Yet to regale The Virgin Suicides or Middlesex and act disgruntled over the subject matter of The Marriage Plot–which I’ve seen a lot of online–is disingenuous. I just read The Virgin Suicides about a month ago, so it’s fresh in my mind; every time I see these complaints online, I think, “this is how Eugenides has always been!” He’s an academic. If you have the opportunity to see him at a reading, that becomes apparent right away. Though the characters do a lot of the same soul-searching people go through at some point in life, ultimately, The Marriage Plot reflects a fairly small segment of the U.S. population. I expected as much. Did it bother me? No, not really.
The book’s title comes from a course that Madeline, one of the three main protagonists, takes in undergrad called “The Marriage Plot: Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot, and James.” The professor of the course posits:
In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. 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 she could file for divorce later?…[M]arriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. Where could you find a marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t.
Except you can–albeit with a few contemporary twists–in the form of this book. The lady: Madeline, a bookworm and aspiring “Victorianist.” Her suitors: Leonard, her manic-depressive biologist boyfriend whose appearance is based on Axl Rose (NOT David Foster Wallace, as so many people keep saying); and Mitchell, a religious studies major intent on marrying Madeline after college. The three of them keep crossing paths during their time at Brown, then part after graduation as they try to find their way in the world. Madeline and Leonard maintain a rocky on-again-off-again relationship (his illness and narcissism being a large part of their drama), while Mitchell sets off for a year abroad in Europe and India.
Regardless of the academic jargon and first world problems the protagonists cocoon themselves in, I really enjoyed this book (I read more than half of it in one sitting). Eugenides’ works can border on pretentious and referential at times, but one can’t deny the beauty of his writing. My main problem with the book–really, with literary fiction penned by male authors in general–is that Madeline wasn’t anywhere near as developed as Leonard and Mitchell. I can usually roll my eyes and look past this (and in a lot of ways, since I still ended up giving the book 4 stars on Goodreads, I did roll my eyes and look past it). But considering that this book is predicated on the concept of “marriage plots” by the likes of Jane Austen–novels whose female characters are richly drawn–the fact that the “lady” of this book is so underdeveloped is kind of a big deal.
Quite the little paradox, no? The Marriage Plot is a book with some glaringly obvious faults, but when it’s good, it’s really damn good. I stand by that 4 star rating.
The Marriage Plot was released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on October 11, 2011.