I had a feeling I was going to like The Marriage Plot, the latest from Pulitzer Prizewinner Jeffrey Eugenides. The novel centers around three Ivy League college students just after their graduation—a time of life I am very familiar with as a member of the Arizona State Unviersity Class of 2007. In fact, I couldn’t help but find comparisons to my own post-collegiate life in all three of Eugenides’s main characters (save for manic depression, thank goodness). This believability, partnered with an engaging narrative and seductive literary backdrop, made this novel a recent favorite of mine.
As the title suggests, The Marriage Plot contains a love story. Fortunately, however, it is much more than that. Like the classics of the Regency and Victorian eras it references, this novel explores that critical juncture in a young person’s life in which the trajectory of the rest of his/her adult life is determined. However, while Jane Austen and George Eliot were required to focus their plots around the social demand of marriage, the characters in Eugenides’s novel have many other options.
Madeleine Hanna loves books. This much is clear by the opening paragraph: a detailed chronicle of the contents of the heroine’s library. In college, however, Madeleine is distracted—as basically all young people are—by the opposite sex. She meets the studious Mitchell Grammaticus as a freshman, but he quickly falls into the much maligned “friend zone”. While he continues to pine for her, Madeleine becomes smitten with Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant biology student who suffers from severe manic depression. As their love triangle plays out, Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard struggle to maintain a hold on their non-sexual passions—literature, spirituality and science, respectively—leaving them all feeling emptier because of it.
Throughout The Marriage Plot there is a strong contrast between conventionality and innovation. At Brown University in the early 1980s, the setting at the opening of the novel, the study of literature experienced a philosophic overhaul. Madeleine, a dutiful English major and lover of the Victorian canon, takes a course in semiotics simply to see what all the buzz is about. As a result, she meets Leonard and becomes enraptured by the nontraditional kind of life he has to offer. Mitchell, despite his commonplace blue-collar upbringing, is spiritual and desires to overcome his agnosticism. Mitchell rejects his family’s church-on-Sunday view of religion in favor of a yearlong spiritual exploration that leads him to draw some unsettling conclusions about himself.
While there is much to love about The Marriage Plot, the novel is not without its flaws. In spite of the novel’s references to new and inventive ways of looking at literature, The Marriage Plot does not necessarily offer anything fresh in the way of form or content. In terms of form, the switches in point-of-view have already been done very well recently by Jonathan Franzen. Regarding content, the coming-of-age plot in a campus setting is very engaging here, but it is certainly not a format I haven’t enjoyed before.
Overall, I very much enjoyed The Marriage Plot. Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel comes recommended to English majors and lovers of literature everywhere.