Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is set in 1982 and follows three co‑eds as they graduate from Brown and embark on their first year post‑college. Madeleine Hanna is the gal at the center of this love triangle, an English major in love with the great Victorian romance novels, rather than the hip semiotics novels that her peers love. On the other two points are Mitchell Grammaticus, who is into Christian mysticism, and Leonard Bankhead, a manic‑depressive scientist.
Eugenides’s writing is beautiful, but not for the faint of heart. At first you don’t like any of the characters, but they grow into wonderful people. Madeleine is that girl from college who was very pretty and studied hard, but never seemed to have an original intelligent thought of her own. As the story progresses, she begins to love Victorian novels in a weird traditional‑feminist way that makes her a truly interesting character. Mitchell is the weird kid who runs off to Europe rather than immediately going into academia and seems stuck in his woe‑is‑me trope. Mitchell, too, grows into a truly likeable person. Leonard is the hardest to like, but that is likely because he is a manic depressive. Eugenides does a great job of portraying Leonard’s illness and his struggles with finding the right dosage of lithium such that he can still feel himself while controlling his illness. And Leonard reads kind of like Axl Rose, which is the best.
The Marriage Plot has taken a lot of flack for being pretentious, but that label misses the point of the novel, which is to poke fun at the pretentiousness of the characters. Eugenides is clearly derisive in his treatment both of the Victorian novel and of the semiotics movement. Critics are right that this book is not as good as Eugenides’s Middlesex, but it is still a very engaging and thoughtful book.
However, I was really not a fan of the third‑person subjective narration. There seemed to be no reasoning behind when the narration would shift from the perspective of one character to that of another. At times, specific events were told from one character’s perspective and then retold from another’s perspective with differing details. These issues meant that there was not one, but three unreliable narrators to contend with as a reader.
This book was a great read. Read it. And then read Middlesex, if you haven’t already!