The Marriage Plot – Book Review

She used a line from Trollope’s Barchester Towers as an epigraph: “There is no happiness in love, except as the end of an English novel.” Her plan was to begin with Jane Austen. After a brief examination of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility, all comedies, essentially, that ended with weddings, Madeleine was going to move on to the Victorian novel, where things got more complicated and considerably darker. Middlemarch and The Portrait of a Lady didn’t end with weddings. They began with the traditional moves of the marriage plot – the suitors, the proposals, the misunderstandings – but after the wedding ceremony they kept on going. These novels followed their spirited, intelligent heroines, Dorothea Brooke and Isabel Archer, into their disappointing married lives, and it was here that the marriage plot reached its greatest artistic expression. – from The Marriage Plot, page 22-33

Jeffrey Eugenides newest novel is set in the early 1980s and opens at Brown University in Rhode Island. Madeleine Hanna, an English major with a flair for the romantic, is writing her senior thesis on the marriage plot – unaware that her life will soon evolve into a more complicated version of her thesis. As Madeleine navigates the complex literary world of the 80s, trying to unravel the meaning behind the idea of semiotics, she meets Leonard Bankhead. Leonard is charming, erotic…and bi-polar (a fact which eludes Madeleine early on, but gradually becomes a factor in their relationship). Mitchell Grammaticus has been secretly in love with Madeleine for a long time. He is also deeply entrenched in religious studies and decides, after graduation, to travel with his friend Larry to Europe and then to India where he confronts the larger questions of life and love.

The novel follows these three characters in parallel and intersecting narratives as they navigate college, graduation, sexual freedom, feminism, mental illness, love, divorce, and finally maturity.

The Marriage Plot is all about the journey of its characters. Filled with humor, sadness, and an honest look at growing to adulthood during the 1980s, the novel drew me in completely. I graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 1982, and so much of Eugenides observations of college life during that time period rang true to me. In many ways, Eugenides’ novel reminds me of another book I read earlier this year: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Both authors provide a perspective of middle-class America and depict deeply flawed, fully developed characters. That said, I slightly preferred The Marriage Plot – it is funnier, less cynical, and more optimistic than Franzen’s tome.

All of the characters in The Marriage Plot are struggling with their own demons. Leonard’s battle with bi-polar disorder is brilliantly drawn. He is a tragic character. Mitchell struggles with his own identity as a man, as well as how his life fits within the greater scheme of the universe and God. He was, perhaps, my favorite character in the book. Madeleine holds a romanticized view of life and has a hard time letting go of the typical female desire to “fix” the one she loves. Her growth, from idealistic college student to a woman who begins to finally recognize her worth as an individual, is triumphant.

Ultimately the book is a deep and satisfying novel about romantic love reflected against our societal mores and history. Eugenides brilliantly uses literary references and draws parallels between Madeleine’s senior theses and the books she reads to help the reader gain further understanding of the characters and their relationships with each other.

The Marriage Plot is a character-driven, literary novel which will appeal to readers who enjoy literary fiction. Also readers who survived college and its aftermath during the early 1980s in the United States will find a lot to love about Eugenides’ latest effort. I found the novel to be an intellectually stimulating, greatly satisfying reading which I can highly recommend.

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Have YOU read and reviewed this book? Leave me a link to your review in the comments and I’ll add it to the list above.

FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.

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    • Laura on November 30, 2011 at 18:35

    5 stars across the board! Oh my. No doubt about it, I HAVE to read this.

  1. as always, I completely trust you on this. I have heard great things from others.

  2. This is one of the books that my book club will be voting on at our next meeting. It sounds good to me, but I don’t think most of the members of my book club will enjoy it.

  3. I knew you’d love this one – I suspect that going to a US college in the 80s helps a lot with that!

  4. Nice review.
    I loved this book. Wrote a review: 10 Things I Love About Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.

  5. This looks great! I didn’t know the genesis of the title but that sure is an intriguing thesis topic. Have you read Middlesex? It was a terrific Eugenides book.

    • Andi on December 1, 2011 at 08:04

    You allllmost lost me at Franzen, but the “less cynical” part gives me hope. I have yet to read a Eugenides I like, but if any of them will worm their way into my heart, it will likely be this one. Anything involving academia and college life will surely make me swoon a little. Throw in some semiotics and I’m in English nerd heaven.

    • zibilee on December 1, 2011 at 09:00

    I am hoping to listen to this one soon, and am excited and encouraged by your reaction to it. It sounds like there is a lot of meat here to think about and consider, and I can’t wait for the library to deliver it! Great review today! I really appreciated your perspective!

  6. I’m laughing at Andi’s comment, because we did a buddy read of Freedom. Well, we tried. We both hated it so much we gave up. But I liked the Marriage Plot alot, despite my Franzen-failure.

  7. I loved this one too! I also spotted a lot of similarities, most notably in mood, between Freedom and The Marriage Plot.

    • Wendy on December 4, 2011 at 18:28

    Laura: I think you’ll like the 80s references and the literary connections in this one. Since I gave it 5 stars – you’ll probably give it 4 or 4.5 stars 🙂

    Beth: Hope you love it!

    Kathy: I don’t know what your bookclub usually reads – but it is discussion worthy. However, if those in your bookclub are not lovers of literary fiction, it might not be a favorite.

    Jackie: LOL! I saw your review of it – and I do think it makes a difference if you have attended a US college, especially during the time frame of the book!

    Barbara: Glad you also loved it!

    Teacher/Learner: YES! I did read Middlesex and loved it. Terrific book.

    Andi: LOL. It is definitely NOT as cynical as Franzen. And since you love academia and semiotics…well, I think you will like this one *crosses fingers*

    Heather: Hope you love it!

    Jill: Oh good – I am not out in left field then when I encourage Andi to pick it up LOL!

    Carrie: Yup, mood-wise…and I think style too…a lot like Freedom.

  8. Excellent review, Wendy! I graduated from high school in 1980 (and attended college for a year before getting married and raising my daughter), so I have a feeling I’ll be able to relate to these characters. Plus, I loved Middlesex!

    • Karen on January 9, 2012 at 06:48

    This is a very insightful review! I also read this book, but felt completely different about it! Middlesex is one of my favorite books ever so my expectations included that as a comparison. This book highly disappointed me! (But again, thanks for the well-written review!).

    • Steven on January 14, 2012 at 12:03

    For me, THE MARRIAGE PLOT is the best book of 2011. But I’m biased, as I was an English and Molecular Biology major at a one of those Ivy League schools (way over-rated) in the early 80’s, and worked in a lab in the North East, as well as for a literary magazine in Paris — kind of an amalgamation of Mitchell and Leonard, and I was in love with a girl like Madeleine, who is now an artist and professor in San Francisco.

    Other Fave English-language Fiction Books of 2011:
    2) The Art of Fielding, 3)State of Wonder, 4) The Night Circus, 5) 11/22/63,
    6) Open City 7) The Cat’s Table

  9. I’m only 1/4 through this book and was considering giving up when I read this review and know that I have to keep reading!

    The problem is that I’m a sucker for fast-paced books and The Marriage Plot is very slow going (at least in the beginning). However, I love his writing and his ability to transport you. Whenever I open the book (at least during this part of the story when they’re in college), I feel as if I’ve gone back in time to the 80’s. Thanks for this review!

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