The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot:

Its 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 — whos 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 biologicy laboratory on Cape Cod, but cant escape the secret responsible for Leonards 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.

Summary from

Last night, in a fit of momentum and a fair bit of insomnia, I finished Jeffrey Eugenides’ new book The Marriage Plot. I really enjoyed his previous book Middlesex, and all of the advance press that I read about the book led me to believe that I would like it (I know we’re not supposed to like books set on college campuses about declining upper-crust society, but there it is). Once I decide to read a book, I try and ignore reviews until after I finish it, so I only got bits and pieces of information about the book, so when I started reading, this is the information I had in hand:

  1. The characters within the novel are embedded in the semiotics/lit crit scene at Brown University in the 80’s.
  2. There’s a love triangle.
  3. The book contains a marriage plot, and is at least a little self-referential.

All of those things are true, but only up to a point. I was worried that the novel would be partially closed to me because I haven’t read Derrida/Eco/Barthes, and so any subtext involving the clime of life in an 80’s English department would go over my head. But while I think the specificity of Eugenides descriptions of syllabi and coursework and thoughts help fix the novel in time (and other references, like the brands of beer the college students drink and the music that they listen to ring true), I don’t think you have to have lived through that time to appreciate and understand his characters. That being said, it is set during the college years of our current crop of publishers and critics, so I can understand why they might overemphasize the novelty of seeing your past dramatized in such a detailed way.
And there is indeed a love triangle, but as with the semiotics, is not that important to the plot. More important is the concept of the marriage plot. In his interview with KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt, Eugenides explains that he was intrigued by the idea that shifting norms of love and marriage could render the marriage plot obsolete, and he wanted to write a marriage plot novel set in a (nearly) contemporary setting. It was only in the last  hundred pages or so that I realized that the novel is a bit of a puzzle. It wants you to be thinking about the conventions of the marriage plot, and is in dialog with it. The college setting, the changes in literary criticism of the time, these are all secondary. And that simultaneously impressed me, and took a little away from my enjoyment of the novel.
This book is its characters. In contrast to Middlesex, which had characters that were shadows of family destiny, or unwitting products of the past (a kind of Midwestern magic realism), the characters of The Marriage Plot are nothing but themselves. So when you encounter a passage, such as the heavy-handed but extremely clever ending, that reminds you that these characters are just pieces in that puzzle, it can’t help but to dampen your enthusiasm for them and work against all of the craftsmanship that Eugenides puts into making you fall in love with them.
I did like the book. It gets way deeper into it’s character’s heads than Eugenides did in  Middlesex, and his representation of bipolar disorder is heartbreaking and rings true. Although Middlesex is also pretty high-concept and has characters that are bound to a carefully constructed plot, it still feels a little more human and deeper than The Marriage Plot.
I’ve stayed away from spoiling the plot, but please drop a comment if you’ve read the novel, or if you think I’m completely wrong.

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