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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FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.