Book Review: The Marriage Plot

Love, Religion, and Manic-Depression.
Eugenides inspires, confounds, and disturbs in this 406-page tapestry of self-obsessed twentysomethings just like me.

In the past two weeks, I’ve been devouring my latest literary feast–Jeffrey Eugenides’ modern-day Victorian wannabe, The Marriage Plot.  After finishing the novel at midnight last night like an obese man sneaking the last of a carton of rocky road ice cream,  I know some folks will never be convinced to pick this one up.

But ladies and English-major-gentlemen… read on for my very first book review.

Tawny, verisimilitude and colloquy.  These are just a few new vocabulary words added to my repertoire thanks to Jeffrey Eugenides, whose novel I first heard about on Fresh Air with Terry Gross back in October. 

At first glance, Eugenides’ 406-page story is one of academic snobbery.  Within the first few chapters, he lists countless authors any educated person has obviously read–but I have obviously never heard of.  Quickly (and thankfully), Eugenides unfolds a coming-of-age narrative about post-graduate life and love.  I was drawn into this story because it is so painfully familiar.  The pseudo-heroine Madeleine graduates from college passionately in love with one man, while unknowingly leading on another.  She embodies the lies I believed about dating and love.

Readers travel from Brown University’s college hill on graduation day to the science laboratories at Pilgrim Lake and all the way to Calcutta, alongside Mitchell (the guy stuck in Madeleine’s friend-zone), who tries to subdue his sexual frustration and selfishness while serving in Mother Teresa’s home for the destitute.  Meanwhile insufferably selfish and self-deceptive Madeleine is trying to make sense of her new life, living with a manically-depressed boyfriend, Leonard whose fluctuating mood and weight mimics their relationship.

A constant current running through the novel is Eugenides’ (and Madeleine’s) central question: in an age of rampant divorce, how do you write a novel about love?  Victorian novelists like Austen and Eliot perfected the “marriage plot,” where the heroine ends up saying “yes” to a marriage proposal, the ultimate happily ever after.   But when more marriages end than last forever, how do you bring your novel to a satisfying ending?

Though I was disappointed that the novel is sporadically pornographic, The Marriage Plot is still worth a read for its commentary on the modern experience of love and the timeless search for purpose.