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English department

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

“To start with, look at all the books,” instructs Jeffrey Eugenides in the opening line of his newest novel The Marriage Plot. Readers receive a good look at the books, as they serve to influence the romantic entanglements of recent college graduate Madeline Hanna, Brown University, class of 1982. Eugenides, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, returns to the literary scene with this whirlwind of college, romance, and literature. Because Madeleine wrote her senior thesis on the marriage plot so prevalent in the tales of the 19th century, readers are lead with the question: will Madeleine, with her Victorian sensibilities, be able to find love and happiness in the postmodern, deconstructionist 1980s?

The story begins on graduation day but quickly changes course to give a full detour of college life for Madeleine and two of her male suitors: the sensitive Mitchell Grammaticus, who “was the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy she should fall in love with and marry,” and Leonard Bankhead, who is also smart, but not exactly sane or parent-pleasing. Madeleine’s recurring choice is Leonard, because of his brilliance and brooding temperament. After graduation, Mitchell travels around the world, searching for faith and truth as he also tries get over Madeleine, who moves in with Leonard at his new job in Cape Cod. But the couple struggles to recreate what they had in college, and deeper issues haunt their life together; the “perfect life” she pictured with Leonard remains elusive.

While Madeleine remains the protagonist throughout the story, the narrative perspective switches between Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard. The change in viewpoint keeps the story fresh and informative, but a major problem remains: none of the characters telling the story is particularly likable. Madeleine is frustrating because she acts like she wants to be independent, but she is constantly looking for men to be dependent on: “she remained firm in her renunciations…. Madeleine had her thesis to write. She had her future to figure out. The last thing she needed was a boy to distract her from her work and disturb her equilibrium. But then, during spring semester, she met Leonard Bankhead and her resolve went out the window.” Madeleine is consistently depicted as a fragile, whimsical girl who has no control over her emotions. The object of her senseless affection is Leonard, whom Madeleine describes as “extroverted, energetic, charismatic,” though few of his words and actions in the book actually show that description. Most the time, Leonard comes across as a pompous, tortured soul, uninterested in anyone but himself. Finally Mitchell, the most sympathetic of the trio, spends much of the book deciding whether he should pursue God or Madeleine. One’s patience for his unrequited love is severely tested when “moved, solemn, he lit votive candles, always with the same inappropriate wish: that someday, somehow, Madeleine would be his.” His persistence without any action is futile and unsatisfying.

While Eugenides effectively captures several aspects of the college experience, pointing out universal truths like “college wasn’t like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity,” he also isolates readers with unnecessary and pretentious literary allusions. Readers who unfamiliar or uninterested in literary theory may struggle with the first third of this book, as it seems to reflect as much on Madeleine’s course work as it does on her college experience. Much time is spent discussing Semiotics 211, the class that prompts pages-long digressions on Derrida and the like. The importance of this class in the novel is that this is where Madeleine first meets Leonard. But on her way to that relationship, readers are subject to tangents of “What did Saussure’s Writings in General Linguistics, for instance, have to do with Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49?” This extravagant trend detracts from the story and alienates the reader not only from the characters but also from the novel itself.

By the end, the reader no longer cares if Madeleine finds love. Though this book is about books, it does not hold up in comparison to any of the many books it references, or even to Eugenides’ past work. Its infuriating characters and slow-moving tale do not warrant the time of the diligent reader.