The 1980s are remembered as a prosperous and productive decade in American history. But the early ’80s were tense with economic recession, world events and changing social norms. Set in this transitional period, Jeffrey Eugenides’s latest novel, THE MARRIAGE PLOT, is also liminal in that it is at once old-fashioned and very modern and beyond, setting out to explore transitions of many kinds in its pages. A story of young adulthood, self-examination and, of course, love, it follows three college students as they come out into the world together and alone, their lives intersecting in compelling and emotional ways. While the country grapples with its identity as a superpower, Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard grapple with higher education, the intensity of their feelings, their health and happiness, and even the meaning of life. This is a big, bold novel, astutely imagined and wonderfully written by Eugenides.
"This is a big, bold novel, astutely imagined and wonderfully written."
Madeleine Hanna is the daughter of a well-to-do patrician east coast family. Entitled, romantic and headstrong, she studies the Victorian and Regency literary classics with an eye for the “marriage plot.” Though the type of reading and writing she is interested in is falling out of favor in the semiotics onslaught, she remains true to Jane Austen and others whose ideas of the relationships between men and women center on a particular type of courtship and eventual nuptials. Mitchell Grammaticus befriends Madeleine early on during their time at Brown University. Mitchell is a smart and sensitive seeker who is not so secretly in love with Madeleine. Drawn to Christian studies and metaphysics, he longs for answers that he knows he may never find.
While Mitchell pines for Madeleine for years, Madeleine falls for Leonard Bankhead, a charismatic, brilliant and damaged loner from Oregon. Both attractive and dangerous, Leonard represents the best and worst of the romantic ideal for Madeleine. After college, they begin a life together. At first, it seems that Madeleine's life is following the plot of one of her cherished novels. But real life --- messy, scary and unpredictable --- throws that plot off course soon enough.
After graduation, Madeleine and Leonard leave for Leonard's prestigious science internship, but the mental illness he has been at pains to control for years threatens his safety and their relationship. Things only get worse after Madeleine's marriage plot dreams come true: Leonard can no longer maintain stability, and Madeleine is forced to come to terms with the the limits of love and the purpose of marriage. Meanwhile, Mitchell spends a year traveling the world in search of both enlightenment and clarity about his feelings for Madeleine. Even while he works at one of Mother Teresa's hospitals in India, he clings to the belief that he is destined to marry Madeleine himself.
Dazzling, heartfelt, sincere, intelligent, thoughtful and bittersweet, THE MARRIAGE PLOT is a fantastic novel. Eugenides plays with so many ideas --- from the battle between New Criticism and Semiotics to religious faith, young love, feminism, readers and writers, and the Novel itself. Serious but rarely clunky and never dull, referencing a vast array of intellectual and academic ideas without being preachy or overworked, the book feels fresh and readable on every page. Funny and keen, but often with painful honesty and emotion, THE MARRIAGE PLOT is about possibility of all kinds. It’s indebted to certain traditional literary tropes that capture a particular moment and mood in American cultural history. Yet it remains universal in its examination of change, happiness and, of course, love.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 13, 2011
The Marriage Plot