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English department

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Think for a moment about the Twilight series. Now, brace yourself and imagine, if you will, each Twilight book...but worse. I know what you’re thinking; it’s impossible. But I tell you it is not. What if Twilight was set, rather than in the picturesque Seattle forests, on the monochromatic campus of Brown University or a dingy apartment in Cape Cod? Imagine if Edward was manic depressive, and Jacob a wandering wannabe philosopher. Consider if Bella was even more easily manipulated by the men around her, despite a college education. Shudder, vomit if you must, and quickly force these ideas out of your mind. Just kidding--dwell on them, because this, my friends, this horrifying crucifixion of literature is Jeffrey Eugenides’ newest novel: The Marriage Plot.

What begins as a promising story of an English major at Brown University quickly disintegrates within the first few pages. In Madeleine’s interactions with her roommate we find gems like: “Aren’t we a little bitchy today?” (24) and “You don’t have to be so snide” (111). Thus, Eugenides’ pathetic attempt to capture the banter of twenty-something women, making them sound less like college students and more like the rejects of Mean Girls. He does succeed however, in proving that misogyny still runs around, rampant as the sex lives of his characters.

It gets worse. After a horrifying description of Madeleine’s failure to brush her teeth (which will haunt the reader for the remainder of the chapter), an impromptu breakfast with her parents introduces three of the most picked-over stock characters in bad literature: the batty mother, lethargic but genial father, and the pathetic but intelligent childhood friend who charms the parents of his star-crossed love. We’ve seen it. We’ve heard it. We may have even lived it. Regardless, we’re over it.

After an overly dramatic conversation with Mitchell (who Madeleine hates because, we’re disappointed to find out, he merely touched her hair; we at least wanted some drunken sex here) Madeleine contemplates her promiscuous escapades of the previous night with grim satisfaction. Eugenides continues to assume we have nothing better to do than read about the sex lives of privileged Ivy league students. And worse: that we’ll sympathize with them. We don’t.

Anyway, flashback to Madeleine’s decision to take a Semiotics seminar--oh sorry, I mean a chance for Eugenides to fill the pages with pompous intellectual nonsense. Amidst this academic name-dropping, however, we have a glimmer of redemption (perhaps this story will find substance after all!) only to find out the most important thing she learns in the class is how to bang Leonard, a gentleman caller who is not only arrogant as hell but (bonus!) psychologically disturbed. Madeleine, bless her, cannot see these red flags because she is a woman; and for Eugenides, apparently that means any cognitive processing is blocked out by the presence of a vagina. Thankfully, our hegemonic manly-man Leonard is quick to point out, “I love you has no meaning whatever” (67). Cue Madeleine’s dramatic book toss. Cue collective eye roll. Men laugh, women clap, sexism lives on.

So Madeleine starts a royally dysfunctional relationship with Leonard, breaks up with him, has more sex with him, moves to Cape Cod with him. Because, if you recall, “The last thing she needed was a boy to distract her from her work...but then...she met Leonard Bankhead and her resolve went out the window” (40). Cool story, Eugenides. Tell it again.

Meanwhile, Mitchell dashes off to Europe, presumably to “find himself” or some other noble task. While there, he decides to spend the majority of his time pining over Madeleine and contemplating whether or not God is real--which serves to essentially ruin the shred of respect we had for him and allow Eugenides to throw some obligatory religious discussion into the mix. It’s mildly interesting, but incredibly irrelevant...kind of like the entire novel.

The book continues in the same formula for the duration: Madeleine desperately loves Leonard, Leonard ruins everything. All the while, Mitchell thinks repetitive thoughts in Europe, and oh yeah, Leonard asks Madeleine to marry him. Exemplifying remarkable forethought and self-respect, Madeleine politely replies, “no thanks, I’m going to put my trillion dollar Ivy education to use and get my ass in graduate school.” JUSTKIDDING. The woman wipes her hands on her apron and says yes dear, yet is surprised when the man goes AWOL on their honeymoon. It is at this point that the last hopeful reader sighs, finally resigned to the fact that none of the characters will ever develop and yes, the book really is that bad.

At once casually misogynistic and catastrophically predictable, The Marriage Plot is a literary train wreck. Considering Eugenides’ generous reputation, this is surprising. It’s hard to decide if Eugenides is pandering or bragging with this newest novel, and even harder to tell which is worse. Regardless, the story drowns in a sea of unnecessary prose and unconvincing dialogue, without a single likable character to salvage it. And I won’t give away the ending, but I can assure you it’s as disappointing as the rest of the book.