The Marriage Plot

I’m not a great one for following the books of the moment, but after reading a handful of reviews of Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest novel, The Marriage Plot, I knew, dear reader, that I had to have it. Academics, marriage and madness sounded like an irresistible combination. Having read it, I found it much better than last year’s must-read, Franzen’s Freedom, although it is a more discontinuous novel, less ambitious in some ways but reaching for a much deeper meaning, and at least in its early stages, a huge amount of fun.

The novel opens on a classic scene of the morning-after-the-night-before, as Madeleine Hanna is rudely awakened at 7.30, hideously hungover, by her parents who have come to watch her graduation ceremony and require breakfast and filial attention. Madeleine is a student of English literature with a particular fascination for the love stories of the 19th century, but it’s the early 1980s and, as the narrative so wittily puts it, ‘by senior year she could no longer ignore the contrast between the hard-up blinky people in her Beowulf seminar and the hipsters down the hall reading Maurice Blanchot.’ So she signs up for Semiotics 211 and has a surreal holiday in the land of critical theory. It is here that she meets her nemesis, in the form of Leonard Bankhead, a biology and philosophy student of impressive intellect, who is taking the course out of curiosity. Leonard and Madeleine begin to date, and for Madeleine the die is cast; Leonard seems to be the man she has been waiting for, and helped, if not sometimes hindered, by Roland Barthes’ postmodern appraisal of romance, A Lover’s Discourse, she falls in love with him.

This is not great news to Mitchell Grammaticus, a theology student who has held an unrequited passion for Madeleine ever since college began. Mitchell is a geeky, gawky sort whose subject has taken on a more significant hue for him than just a conveyer belt to a degree. Mitchell wants to find himself through religion, or at least a better, more ethical self than he fears he may be. If it were possible, he’d settle for finding himself through Madeleine Hanna, but although they manage an on-again, off-again friendship, nothing more meaningful that that has ever been on the cards. Mitchell watches Madeleine fall for Leonard with deep dismay, but it’s graduation, the end of those carefree, reckless, yearning years as an apprentice adult, and Mitchell is off travelling with a friend overland to India, that hub of spiritual quests, where undoubtedly his life will be changed.

The early parts of this novel are just so much fun. Eugenides enjoys himself enormously with college students, pretentious theory and interfering parents; he conveys so well the way that desire, in the early twenties, is almost always covertly aspirational, no matter what form it takes. His characters want this person, this class credit, this discourse of knowledge in the hope that something shiny and powerful will rub off on them. So far, so good, but I did feel I could easily be reading an Alison Lurie novel, or at a pinch, one by Anne Tyler. Not that this is bad! I count both those women among my favourite writers, but it was not what I was expecting from a male author hailed as the new great hope of American letters.

From this point on in the narrative, however, things turn much darker. Mitchell and Madeleine, Eugenides’ thwarted lovers, have met and fumbled their first attempts at a relationship, just as any good potential couple should at the start of a romantic novel. Now they have been sent off on very different trajectories, and we readers must wait to see how, or even if, they come together again. What I felt was clever about this novel is that Eugenides suggests that the twentieth century has given us (as opposed to the 19th) a plethora of theories about how to live, how to think, how to understand the world around us. We no longer live in naïve times; instead, everything we do is compared against a theoretical template or a glossy image of how things ought to be. And instead of grand narratives, the province of the 19th century, where the story of mankind was understood to be heading smoothly towards its destiny in perfection, we have competing and contradictory discourses with no way to judge their relative merits. Madeleine is trying to make sense of her life with critical theory, Mitchell with religious theory, but when they step out of the safe precincts of college, life swallows them up in alarming and disturbing ways. Both put their theories to the test with disappointing results.

I don’t think this is a spoiler as we discover it very early in the novel, but look away if you are particularly delicate about spoilers per se. I just have to mention here that Madeleine’s problems with Leonard Bankhead begin (although she thinks at the time this is negligible) when he turns out to suffer from manic depression. Only a small section of the narrative is channelled through Leonard’s point of view, but for me it was the standout section of the book. Eugenides is quite brilliant on the utter dreadfulness of the illness, the way the manic states, so wonderful initially in their magnification of mental and social skills, tip over into a crazy inability to slow down, and how the medication brings dull, deadened reality with a host of unpleasant side effects. There is nowhere for a manic-depressive to be that isn’t painful one way or another. But Leonard’s illness offers Madeleine the irresistible option of trying to save him, mirrored to some extent by Mitchell’s attempts to save the sick and the dying in India. Both are essentially 19th century quests transposed to the modern age.

I found this to be a diverting, rich and well-written novel, but it does start off in one direction, only to finish by heading in another. I liked this because I felt it was motivated and added to the more profound meaning of the story, but Eugenides writes such vivid and engaging scenes that I think you have to step back a bit from the narrative to gain a wider picture of what is going on. The questions he poses are subtle and philosophical: What is a happy ending in the 21st century? What matters most to us in an age that has become self-obsessed? What good does our book learning do us when it comes to putting theory into practice? The fact that he has no pat answers is, I think, both a reasonable conclusion and a postmodern inevitability, which is just the way Eugenides would want it.


36 thoughts on “The Marriage Plot

  1. Forgive me for skipping the middle part of the review as I’m planning on reading this maybe this month. I liked the combination of themes a lot and although I collect his novels I’ve never read one. This will be the first. I heard that Leonard’s madness is painfully well depicted. I can’t help but think it didn’t touch all that much, did it? A case of fascination rather than really loving. I’m curious what I will experience.

    • Well I will be very interested to hear what you make of the book, Leonard’s experience included. I hadn’t read any Eugenides before, and although I really liked this, I am not particularly drawn to the subject matter of his other novels. Perhaps the urge to read them will come upon me at some point!

    • Ha! don’t worry – I do most of my comments on other blogs first thing in the morning before I’ve put my contact lenses in. I shudder to think of the typos I leave behind in my wake.

  2. I think I’d mentioned in an earlier comment that I thought about you the whole time I was reading this novel. It felt like “you.” Nice to know I was right. 🙂

  3. You made me want to read this again right now – and also made me certain that I would discover all sorts of new things about it if I did. As always, thank you for the wonderful and very thoughtful post!

    • Nymeth – I loved your review of this, and people contemplating reading this novel really should check it out. I did enjoy this very much, though, and found it intriguing in all sorts of ways.

  4. See, despite being a big fan of ‘The Virgin Suicides’ and impressed by ‘Middlesex’ I keep convincing myself I won’t enjoy this one. Something about the new aura given to Eugenides by the proclamations that he’s the second coming of American lit fic I suppose. Every time I read a blog review of this novel I’m reminded of why I like his novels, but I do seem to need that reassurance from people I know about this one, so thanks for providing such a great examination of how this novel works. I love the idea of the 19th century quests reinvented and want to see how Mitchell’s religious work plays out. It sounds very worthy, possibly misguided? And interested to see how Leonard’s pov is written, that sounds really different and Eugenides is so good at creating people I might find hard to understand with just my own knowledge of the world.

    • Do you think it’s the Eugenides effect? I’ve never been drawn to reading his other two novels, although I’ve heard lots of good things about them (and hmm, definitely more tempting if you enjoyed them). I really liked the sections about Mitchell and religion – they felt unusual and different to me, and I was intrigued by his portrayal of a spiritual quest in the early 21st century. I think it is a strength of Eugenides’ writing that he comes alive to the marginalised, eccentric and displaced characters. He writes them so smoothly and authentically. I would love to know what you think of this if you do decide to read it in the end!

  5. I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed this. After being unimpressed by Middlesex, I was surprised that I liked this one as much as I did. I particularly like your point about the difficulty of putting book knowledge and theory into practice. I hadn’t given much thought to that aspect of the book, but it’s so clearly evident and so true. Early adulthood is so often a process of finding out that life is so much messier than our ideas about life are.

    • Oh amen to that! I felt he’d really captured something profound and true about the transition into real life after the artifice and security of college days. It is almost always harder and messier and more complex than we think it will be. I was really glad to know that you liked this too.

  6. For different reasons than Jodie’s (I didn’t care for The Virgin Suicides and barely managed to get through five chapters of Middlesex), I’ve convinced myself I won’t like this book too. In a way I don’t want to. I don’t like Jeffrey Eugenides as a person, from what I’ve read about him, and I sort of want not to like him now. I’m afraid The Marriage Plot will force me to love him and open up the door to extreme cognitive dissonance.

    • Well now naturally this makes me long to know what Eugenides has done to upset you. Where do you get this good gossip from, Jenny? I know nothing about the man other than that Nymeth saw him give a reading and enjoyed it. But oh yes, I hear you about cognitive dissonance. Always best to avoid that where possible. 🙂

  7. Thanks for this detailed review, litlove. Now I know what its basic content is… which leads me to this question, and I’m eager to know your opinion: would someone who has not read any of Eugenides’s previous books (except watched the film adaptation of The Virgin Suicides 😉 ), and who is not presently involved in the academic field enjoy this book?

    • I hadn’t read any of his books prior to this one (and get the feeling from other bloggers’ comments that he writes each book quite differently). And absolutely no need to worry about the academic content – this is a good novel, entertaining and accessible, and the section that takes place in college is about the first third of the book. The emphasis is primarily on the experience of his main characters as they leave their education behind and strike out into the world. Obviously I can’t promise you that you’d enjoy it, but I see no evident obstacle to enjoying it from either of the perspectives you mention. Do say how you get on with it if you do decide to give it a go!

  8. I am planning to read this, but it may take time. Yours is the first review of the book I’ve actually read, although the book has been on my radar since it came out. And I know my book group would like to read it, so we may sneak it onto the schedule in the next few months. I like what you say about the difference between Eugenides and Franzen, and this is probably why I will also like The Marriage Plot more than Freedom.

    And on a somewhat unrelated note, I found your Anne Tyler/Alison Lurie comment interesting in terms of expectations from male and female writers. I think I know exactly what you mean, and I’m sure I have similar reactions. But I’m curious to know whether if Jennifer Egan had written a 600 page novel instead of a 250 page novel about American society, would we have considered her work differently. She got a lot of press for The Goon Squad, and awards, yes, but I feel there was a different quality in the discourse about those books, when compared to Freedom and, perhaps, The Marriage Plot. I’m actually frustrated that the “big” books always seem to be male. (And this is really unrelated, but The NY TImes 100 notable book list is so male, I could pull my hair out – 31 men to 14 women.) I can’t even think of a long book written by a woman off the top of my head except for Gordimer’s A Guest of Honour or something from Joyce Carol Oates…. hmmm.

    • You make an interesting point, Michelle. I don’t think the length of the novel has anything to do with it however (but Ayn Rand came directly to mind for publishing doorstoppers). Whether there is or isn’t a subtle (or maybe not so subtle) gender bias in publishing has been argued before in the press, especially in the context of the mythical “Great American Novel” and whether or not a woman can or ever will write such a thing. I wonder what would happen if women authors today were to publish under male pseudonyms, as the Brontës and Eliot did. Would they sell more books and win more awards that way?

      • Such a good question about publishing under a pseudonym… I don’t know if anyone has tried that in a while. And I don’t know whether it would help. Perhaps it would. I think the issue is so complicated, with deep roots in many other aspects of society, that it becomes difficult to sort out where the problem begins (in publishing specifically) and where it might be fixed. If “fixed” is even possible. In terms of novel length, I believe it is difficult to sell a long novel these days, especially by a debut author. Only very established writers seem to be able to get away with it. So in that sense, women have an even smaller chance (if we accept that they are less published in the first place). I had forgotten Ayn Rand, you are quite right to bring her up.

    • Michelle – I would love to know what you think of this, particularly remembering your experience with Freedom last year. And yes, you put your finger on exactly what I was trying to say. If Alison Lurie had written this novel, would she have got the same sort of press for it? Now on the one hand, to be fair, she did win a Pulitzer prize, so she is a recognised author. But there’s the same problem as with Jennifer Egan – so few ‘big books’ are written by women, and that NY Times list is a good indication of the sort of problem we mean here.

      The one writer who immediately springs to mind in relation to your comment and Ruthiella’s is J K Rowling. I get the impression that her early books were much better received before she became famous. Once everyone knew she was a single mother who’d written the first Harry Potters in a local cafe to keep warm, and also once those books started to get bigger and bigger, critical appreciation for her went downhill. Mind you, that tends to happen anyway with authors who gain excessive fame (think of Dan Brown!). So the jury’s out as to the real reason the critics began to dislike her. But it is intriguing.

  9. I haven’t read anything by him so far. I hear a lot of him on blogs but not so much in France.
    Are the parts on literary critic very long and full of obscure references for those who know nothing of it?
    Caroline, I’ll be curious to read your review.

    The allusion to Alison Lurie tempts me as I loved Foreign Affairs. In that one she also explores how novels and our reading influence our expectations in our love relationships. – something also explored in a good short story by Philip Langeskov, Notes on a Love Story.

    • Emma – no need to worry at all. The literary critical section is by no means a deep appraisal of that sort of theory; it’s mentioned and referred to and mostly sent up as a joke! So I think you would actually appreciate it on the whole. I’m so delighted to know you love Alison Lurie. I think she’s a brilliant writer. I’ve long read all her novels, but I suppose I could always read them again. I wish she’d write another! And thank you for the recommendation – I’ll look it out.

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  11. I strongly disliked both The Virgin Suicides (which seemed to pretend to critique the fetishization of young, victimized girls, only to buy into that same fetishization in the end) and Middlesex (which struck me as a generic rehash of every Modern Family Epic I’ve ever read), so I am torn about whether to give this one a chance – a long book by an author with whom I’ve struck out twice. It’s certainly getting a lot of press. Rohan Maitzen’s piece at Open Letters is pretty intriguing, for all that it’s a “negative” review. And now your very thoughtful and reasoned addition. Much food for thought.

    • Thank you, Emily, for referring me to Rohan’s review, which I hadn’t twigged was out there. I have the most enormous respect for Rohan as a critic and I found her analysis fascinating and insightful. But I also think that she is a 19th century specialist because she loves what the 19th century does with narrative, and my feeling about this novel was that it was very 21st century postmodern in the way it chooses chaos and uncertainty over the grand narrative and meaningfulness. Mind you, all that being said, there are so many books out there that if you don’t like Eugenides from past acquaintanceship, then I’d pass this one up and read something by an author who really does intrigue you. Life is short!

  12. I like the sound of this one. I’ve not yet read Eugenides so maybe I’ll finally get around to it. Though I suppose when I do I should start with Virgin Suicides and Middlesex since they are already on the shelf from when my husband read them. Sigh. I’m going to ask Santa for extra time in my stocking. I’ve been a really good girl.

    • Lol! I really think Santa ought to give out extra time gift vouchers. Wouldn’t that be great? I refer you to all the commenters above who remark on how different Eugenides’ novels are from one another. Of course you could read his earlier works, but they wouldn’t be in any way introductions to this one… not that I’m tempting you or anything! 🙂

  13. Ack! Have reeled away mid-read at the word ‘spoiler’ – you’d already done too good a job of making me want to read this novel to risk continuing! A typical hazard here in the Reading Room…

  14. I completely agree with your comments on the portrayal of Leonard’s mental illness: the most powerful and affecting account I have ever read. It’s a really good book, but worth reading if only for that part alone.

    • Voula – oh I’m so glad I’m not alone in thinking this! I did find it very powerful too. I was almost glad when it was over, although not glad at the same time because it was so well written.

  15. I’m like you – sometimes I shy away from the books everyone tout as “must read.” However, this one has interested me because I’m drawn to stories of academic life. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it, leaving me free to put my scruples about the hype aside and give it a go.

  16. I’ve read some interesting things about this book–so many reviews that now I wonder if I even need to read it. 🙂 I’ve not yet read anything by Jeffrey Eugenides, though I do have Middlesex somewhere. I hadn’t realized that he was being touted as the next big thing in American Lit and to tell you the truth I tend to give wide berth to contemporary male American authors–not that I’m trying to make any point but I guess I find other authors/stories more interesting. I shouldn’t do that–though I did just dig through my piles for something contemporary–but I came away with female authors–again not trying to just happened. Maybe it’s all subconscious–that I don’t like that women authors and the stories they tell are always pushed aside as somehow less worthy or interesting. That said I do like the idea of this story and think I might very much like the bookish/academic aspect of it. Maybe I’ll try it after all.

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