Jeffrey Eugenides! Author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. Pulitzer Prize Winner. Dude on a Times Square billboard. When I received an advance reader copy of his latest novel this summer - The Marriage Plot - expectations were high. Those expectations were crushed in short order when I read the first five pages three times, could get no further, and put the book back on the shelf until fall with a sigh. Eventually, I picked it back up with tempered expectations.
The novel kicks off at Brown University in the early eighties and tells the story of three students that become involved in a love triangle of sorts. The early reviews that I read were all agog that Eugenides begins the novel with a shout out to literature. The very first line of the novel is, “To start with, look at all the books.” I’m guessing that the reviewers had similar book shelves. I did not, and I often found the establishment of the literary bona fides tedious. Madeleine, an English major writing her thesis on the Regency/Victorian-era “marriage plot,” isn’t too enthusiastic about literature herself:
Some people majored in English to prepare for law school. Others became journalists. The smartest guy in the honors program, Adam Vogel, a child of academics, was planning on getting a Ph.D. and becoming an academic himself. That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default, Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical–because they weren’t musical artistic, financially motivated, or really that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.
Ouch. The tediousness reaches its height when Eugenides discusses the ins-and-outs of a semiotics class that our star-crossed trio take together. Eventually though, a story takes place.
Madeleine becomes involved with Leonard Bankhead, the “bad boy” in the love triangle. Leonard is a handsome former burnout from Portland. He wears flannel and chews tobacco and turns out to be manic-depressive. Not very Ivy League. The other corner of the triangle is Mitchell – the “good boy.” How good is Mitchell? He is a relatively chaste religious studies major who at one point in the novel finds himself in India working for Mother Theresa. Not kidding. So you know who Madeleine chooses, right?
Early in the novel, Eugenides tips his hand on where the novel is headed in a discussion of the outline for Madeleine’s thesis:
…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 keep going. These novels followed their spirited, intelligent heroines…into their disappointing married lives, and it was here that the marriage plot reached its greatest artistic expression.
There is a marriage, and it should be no surprise that it becomes disappointing. Things get complicated and considerably dark. However intelligent Madeleine may be, however, she doesn’t come across as all that spirited. Fatalistic would be my description. Madeleine seems to be carried along by events as though she has no control over the story of her own life.
As much as I’ve griped about the novel in this review, I did come away with a grudging appreciation by its end. I cared enough about the characters, eventually, to want to know how things turned out. The Marriage Plot is not Eugenides’s “greatest artistic expression,” but this is in no way a terrible novel. My own very high expectations for this novel set a bar that I think few novels would have been capable of achieving.