California Literary Review

Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

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November 16th, 2011 at 10:00 am

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The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot
by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★½☆


Love in the Time of Lithium

“To start with, look at all the books.” Jeffrey Eugenides’s eagerly-anticipated third novel, The Marriage Plot, opens with a catalogue of a college student’s bookshelf. Spanning a range of appropriately literary titles from Jane Austen to John Updike, the collection serves as an introduction to both its owner, Madeleine Hanna, and the primary preoccupation of the novel. Because although The Marriage Plot is framed as love triangle between three young Brown graduates in the early 1980s—the lovely but conflicted Madeleine, the troubled genius Leonard Bankhead, and the idealistic, soul-searching Mitchell Grammaticus— it is also essentially a book about books.

Discovering that the nineteenth-century novels that she loves have fallen out of fashion, Madeleine enrolls in a seminar on semiotic theory to “find out what everyone else was talking about.” In the class, Madeleine meets Leonard, a scholarship student and brilliant scientist whose keen intelligence and troubled past challenge and attract her. In the meantime, Madeleine’s friend Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious studies major, comes to the conclusion that he will end up marrying Madeleine, although he is not entirely sure how or when that will happen.

The rest of the novel follows Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell after they leave college: Madeleine follows Leonard to a research institute on Cape Cod, where he has secured a prestigious fellowship and struggles with an increasingly severe case of manic depression. Mitchell travels around the world, stopping in Paris, Athens, and finally Calcutta, in a quest to come to terms with himself and his relationship to the divine.

While the novel soon moves away from the academic setting where it begins, all those books and their effects on the development of the three main characters continue as a subterranean current throughout the next year of these three lovers’ lives. Madeleine’s growing passion for Leonard unfolds alongside her discovery of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, which analyzes the kinship between reading and desire. Madeleine’s intense identification with Barthes’s work suggests that her passion for Leonard comes from the same place as her passion for literature. (She even hurls her copy of the book at Leonard’s head during a fight.)

Likewise, Mitchell’s spiritual wanderings are also largely directed by the books that he reads—most notably JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and Something Beautiful for God, which describes Mother Teresa’s work with the sick in Calcutta. Happening upon the book when he is kicked out of a friend’s apartment in Paris, Mitchell takes Something Beautiful to Calcutta, where he attempts to reconnect with the divine by losing himself in service to poverty.

Perhaps because Madeleine and Mitchell use books as their inspiration and their guides, their sections of the novel take shape as recognizable coming-of-age tales. However, Leonard’s path is very different. Leonard’s corrosive bipolar depression leads him to self-destruct as his brilliant mind turns against him. Hospitalized for the first time, he realizes that “the smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up.” The deconstructive tactics from the first section of the novel becomes, in Leonard’s case, frighteningly and tragically concrete. Unlike Madeleine and Mitchell, Leonard is not trying to find himself—rather, he is trying to keep himself together.

Although Madeleine is presumably the center of this troubled love triangle, in the second half of the book it’s really Leonard who becomes the focus of the novel. Leonard simply doesn’t fit into the typical “marriage plot,” which is part of what makes him so compelling as a character. The more conventional trajectories of Madeleine and Mitchell (but particularly Madeleine) fade into the background, as the marriage plot itself—typically defined by “suitors…proposals…misunderstandings” and the struggle of their “spirited, intelligent heroines” to find their rightful place in the world—becomes fractured by Leonard’s inability to heal.

However, once the marriage plot has been deconstructed, what new story is there to tell? How can these young men and women understand or make their way in a world that has been liberated from these particular social narratives and expectations? The Marriage Plot raises these questions, but doesn’t provide an answer: in the last section of the novel, much like Madeleine herself, Eugenides retreats from these thorny theoretical questions and turns back to the “exquisite guilt” of narrative. The result is a book that is neither an explicit critique of the novel form nor allows itself to fully revel, however guiltily, in its pleasures.

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