Review: The Marriage Plot

Jeffrey Eugenides’ new book, The Marriage Plot, feels more like an exercise than a novel. At heart, it’s an updating of the classic marriage plots of Victorian literature, the “will they or won’t they” pairings that fill novels of longing, calculation and need.

Eugenides’ setting is Brown University of the early 80s, where a love triangle spins out of graduation. It focuses on Madeleine Hanna, a privileged daughter of prototypical East Coast WASPs. A fan of traditional marriage plots, she’s trying to navigate a new world of semiotics and the attention of two of her classmates. Mitchell Grammaticus, prickly and uncompromising, looks for meaning in the mysteries of faith. Leonard Bankhead, exuberant and hedonistic, hopes for a trailblazing career in biology—if he can overcome a tough childhood and misfiring brain chemistry.

We follow these characters through the first year after graduation. Alternating among the three narrators, the author captures the nastiness of self-discovery. Mitchell and Leonard are ambitious, intelligent and young enough to want to prove it to everyone they meet. Their insecurities feel true-to-live, but they can be tiresome, even if the pages turn quickly. The Marriage Plot may not have the narrative drive of Middlesex and the Virgin Suicides—it lacks the “put down your book” moments and big truths. But at the line level it’s fluid and engaging.

In the end, though, it falls short of Eugenides’ standard. He seems to pair semiotics with the marriage plot to indicate how young people are forced to find their own paths to proper living in a world without universal standards or expectations. I can only speak from ignorance on Derrida, but his presence seems to suggest that sure new ways of living may soon age into fads and fancies.

But Eugenides’ characters are an empty bunch to illustrate the point. It’s never believable that their three lines intersect. Leonard’s charm is only told to us secondhand; we get whiffs of mint chewing tobacco and a frat-boy philosophy that stands in for free living.

Mitchell, on the other hand, is a naked blade, believing he deserves things because he’s smarter than everyone else. One of the best sections of the novel is his post-graduate interlude in India. There, while playing at service—and achieving some—at Mother Theresa’s charity, he shaves his head, a rejection of frivolity, he thinks. But another seeker has a cutting response:

“I know the person you are…You think you are not a vain person. You are maybe not so much into your body. But you are probably more vain about how intelligent you are. Or how good you are. So maybe, in your case, cutting off your hair only made your vanity heavier.”

“It’s possible,” Mitchell acknowledges. His character is rounded out by his awareness of his own failings. He suffers for them. But at this point in his life, he seems too nasty for Maddy to want to spend much time with.

Maddy herself is defined mostly by the people around her. Level-headed, capable and a bit bland, her problems are other people’s problems. But she even admits she would be more likely to run away from Leonard and Mitchell’s problems than embrace them. So Eugenides is forced to snare her with love, which ends up feeling more like a plotmaker’s trick than a natural development. That may be part of the point—that we shape our own feelings toward what we’ve been conditioned to expect love to be. But it stills feels weak.

Class issues are periodically brought to the stage and shuffled off. On his first night in Paris, Mitchell goes through a believable crisis of the pocketbook, but he soon turns to his parents’ American Express card. Leonard is broke too, a development that stirs up insecurities with Madeleine, but we never see him live it. The novel would be more engrossing if Eugenides let these themes live at the surface. That he doesn’t is especially surprising given his success evoking modern struggles to get by in short stories like the excellent Great Experiment.

With The Marriage Plot, Eugenides has written a gripping book about some very young—and flawed—people. It’s compelling and thorough; it rewards the time you spend with them. But it still seems a strange choice for a novel. Why do these characters deserve our attention, beyond the clear work he’s put into them? Why take the struggles to shape a meaningful way of living up to the early 1980s instead of present day?

In the end, it feels like Eugenides wanted to revisit some unfinished issues from his college days. He does the best he can with it, but it seems he could have done better elsewhere.