The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

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Photo: The Guardian UK

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides’ third novel published late last year, captures that window of time between college years and finding your place in the “real world.” The characters are slightly older than those of his last two books (The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex), but no less complicated.

The story opens as the characters near graduation day from the prestigious Brown University in 1982. Madeleine is a Victorian novel-loving, WASP-y, aspiring feminist who struggles to find her place amidst her peer literary intellectuals – many of whom have come to find the likes of Austen and Dickens passé and have embraced Semiotics instead (in short, the study of symbolism, language and pragmatics). It is in this pursuit of intellectual growth, that Madeleine discovers Roland Barthe’s A Lover’s Discourse and just in time for her own first real experience with love itself. Leonard, a scientist in the making, at first exudes all that is desirable in a college-aged youth – brilliance, charm, depth – yet something is amiss. Meanwhile, Mitchell fluctuates from his longing for Madeleine and his longing for religion, a truly spiritual experience that can “save him” perhaps even from himself. Their struggles, particular Leonard’s, tangle and untangle the three characters throughout as well as their personal rites of passage.

Yes, it’s a love triangle, but a modern one. Eugenides’ Marriage Plot is a plot of our times – of issues that may confound young people in love today: mental illness, spiritual growth, independence, and individual identity.  Madeleine, “incurably romantic” as she is, manages to put herself into a situation that requires her to make difficult decisions about love and choosing a mate at the young age of 22. She follows her heart, while trying not to compromise other aspects of her life or personality. She is the 80s version of the classic Victorian heroine: Ivy Leave educated, well-read, ambitious, desirable to suitors, all of whom she shuns until one comes along that gives her the challenge and mystery she craves. Leonard, on the other hand, inspires a milieu of feelings throughout the story – one minute, you’re his steadfast cheerleader, and the next you are frustrated with him. The question of his compatibility with Madeleine as their relationship proceeds through the ebbs and flows of any long term relationship is puzzling– as it would be in real life. Mitchell’s shadow in Madeleine’s life continues to linger even as he makes his way through Europe and eventually India, fighting his feelings for her while losing to the existential questions that baffle most of those trying to attain true religious and spiritual meaning.

Eugenides, as in the past, deftly creates characters with nuanced tendencies, inclinations, professions – his description of Leonard’s scientific research and manic depression is deep, accurate and very much believable, as are his insights to Mitchell’s religious exploration and inner struggles. Still Eugenides manages to find a way to give his stories an underlying humor and punchy sarcasm, without taking away from the seriousness. Much of fiction cannot be expected to teach any concrete life lessons per se, but The Marriage Plot is an entertaining, engrossing survey of how relationships may form and fizzle – how people sometimes live their lives as self-fulfilling prophecies, being true to who they actually are and not as much who they want to be.

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