THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides

From the Jacket

It’s the early 1980s–the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever.  In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to the Talking Heads.  But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.  As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes.  Leonard Bankhead–charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy- suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him.  At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus–who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange–resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school.  Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods.  And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.  Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead?  Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce?  With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.

My Thoughts

THE MARRIAGE PLOT took me ages to get through, and didn’t quite seem worth it in the end.  Here, Eugenides tells the story of three Brown seniors, Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell and their intertwined love lives as they graduate and move on into the real world.  After a sex-charged relationship senior year, Madeleine and Mitchell move to Cape Cod together post-graduation, and Madeleine’s “friend” Mitchell travels around India and Europe pining for her and reading too much.  Between mental health battles and Madeleine’s boy troubles, THE MARRIAGE PLOT seems to be full of enough gas to keep the story going.  Sadly, I couldn’t get into Eugenides’ groove.

“She’d become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.”

For me, THE MARRIAGE PLOT was an exhausting read; three pages before bed was enough to put me to sleep.  With a reading experience similar to sitting through a frustratingly boring lecture, Eugenides happily takes the role of lecturer, with a well-spoken and intelligent yet condescending tone.  The novel is full of dull, existential conversations between characters regarding religion, politics, literature, etc. that serve no purpose to the story but to display Eugenides’ Brown education.  There is no driving force behind THE MARRIAGE PLOT that made me want to keep reading; this paired with an nonexistent plot and unlikable characters make the story a bore (if there even is a story here to begin with).

“Depression is like a bruise that never goes away.  A bruise in your mind.  You just got to be careful not to touch where it hurts.”

The one (and, unfortunately, only) aspect I did enjoy of THE MARRIAGE PLOT is the setting.  I never thought I would read a campus novel I didn’t like.  Eugenides really brings Brown to life; I identified so much with Madeleine when it came to being an English major.  While reading, I was definitely reminded of the pain of sitting in a classroom seminar with ten other students, each trying to out-smart one another.  But, alas, Eugenides’ writing is just as pretentious as the know-it-all students his heroine mocks.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT and all its pretentiousness once again reminded me that I too rarely like anything written by a straight white male… and now I must quickly cleanse my palate by reading dozens of women-authored books.

12 Comments

  1. Karissa

    It’s been a while since I read this one but your review sounds spot on to my memory. I didn’t much like Madeleine but I think it was largely a flaw in a male writer attempting to understand (or tell us he understands) a young female character.

    Liked by 1 person

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