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The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

April 12, 2012

Eugenides is a writer’s writer, usually included with Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace at the top of lists of modern, hyper-literate masters. From what I’ve read of the three, he’s also the most accessible and the most enjoyable to read. His last book, Middlesex, won the Pullitzer Prize (while I like it quite a bit, I preferred his first, more poetic novel, The Virgin Suicides). But Middlesex was published 10 years ago, which set up The Marriage Plot as somewhat of a literary event.

So it might seem surprising that The Marriage Plot deals with such a conventional subject as marriage. At the center of the “marriage plot” novel, made popular in the 19th century by the likes of Jane Austin and the Brönte sisters and manifest in literature and film since, is the classic love triangle in which the heroine must choose between two suitors, usually resulting in a wedding and an implied “happy ever after.”

Nobody who knows Eugenides would read this book expecting a conventional story. Indeed, it’s more of a deconstruction, a self-referential, post-modern reworking of the marriage plot. But he does stick within the classic confines to a surprising degree. In this case, the three vertices to the love triangle are three highly-educated Brown University students. Madeleine Hanna, an attractive English major writing a senior thesis on the marriage plot, is the central protagonist. Her suitors are (a)Mitchell Grammaticus, an awkward religious studies major searching for a visceral, spiritual feeling that matches his academic understanding of what faith is., and (b) Leonard Bankhead, a hulking, brilliant manic-depressive bio-chemist who oscillates from delightfully charming to infuriating to brilliant to frightening (many have pointed out similarities between Bankhead and David Foster Wallace, though Eugenides denies that Bankhead is based on Wallace).

The novel begins on the morning of graduation, early 1980s, and continues for about a year, mixing in flashbacks. Although Madeleine is the central character, the two suitors steal the show. After graduation, Mitchell departs on a year-long trip around the world to find himself and forget about Madeleine. But as the trip progresses from Europe to Mother Theresa’s mission in Calcutta and Mitchell has experiences that seem ideal for a person on a spiritual quest, he is increasingly distracted with thoughts of Madeleine. While Mitchell is traveling the world searching for divine mystery and longing to be closer to Madeleine, Leonard is trying to solve the mystery of his own biology while working long hours in a prestigious biology laboratory on Cape Cod. He’s actually living with Madeleine, but their relationship is becoming exceedingly claustrophobic.

This dichotomy—the quiet, wandering mystic vs the self-examining, mercurial scientist—is much more compelling than the explicit commentary on the marriage plot. And while a cursory plot summary makes The Marriage Plot sound fairly conventional, each character’s individual search is fascinating, and their conflicts, both internal and with each other, are brilliantly rendered. Time and again, Eugenides nails the emotional truths in a way that, even though he’s playing in (or with) an established genre, seems fresh and insightful. If I were as versed in the literary history of the marriage plot, I might have a greater appreciation for what this novel achieves as a deconstruction of the genre. But as it is, I just thought it was a good, very well-written story.

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