Book Review: The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot is a thinking person’s love story.  Which is to say, it’s not much of a love story in the traditional sense, but it is about romance and relationships, and it all is very smart and engaging.

Eugenides riffs on all those Victorian-era romance novels consumed with “the marriage plot:” “Will the unlikely protagonist get the one they truly love in the end?”: Austen and Eliot and even Anna Karenina.  The riffing is self-conscious and up front, which is part of the fun of the novel.  Madeline Hanna is finishing her English degree at Brown.  She is in love with these stories, and she is also in love with Leonard, whom she meets in a semiotics class where all her notions of love and relationships get deconstructed.  Leonard is a brilliant scientist, but his manic depression haunts his and Madeline’s relationship; while Mitchell, a young man in pursuit of religious and spiritual truth, loves Madeline, who sees him only as a friend.

Because all Eugenides’s characters are thoughtful and intelligent, they understand that love is more complex than the old storybook versions of love (though Austen, Eliot, and any of the good older writers also got this).  He further complicates what is already complicated by showing us love and relationships through the eyes of feminist and deconstructionist theories, by layering these different ways of telling the story of love, and by upending the usual storybook ending.

The Marriage Plot is largely a novel of ideas, but it also has Eugenides’s attention to detail and character development.  Each character is so finely drawn that you end up feeling like their friend and rooting for them despite their foibles and flaws.  Eugenides takes us to the East Coast in the 80s, to Europe, and India; he shows us Mother Teresa’s charitable work, Christian mysticism, radical feminism, and even yeast biology.  Aside from Austen, Tolstoy, and Eliot, he references Derrida, Salinger, and Talking Heads.

Many critics have written the novel off as pretentious, but I found it accessible and believable despite some of the high-mindedness.  I also appreciated getting the three characters’ points of view, and I enjoyed the way the narrative twisted and turned in time.

The Marriage Plot confirms me as a fan of Eugenides: I’ve enjoyed all three of his novels, and, while all of them are very different, they all, The Marriage Plot included, are thoughtful and thought-provoking.

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