Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice opens, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Jeffrey Eugenides, in his new book The Marriage Plot, perhaps sets out to challenge this universal truth. He weaves a tale of three newly-graduated Brown students, each in the distinctly transitional stage from college to the “real world,” youth to adulthood—a coming-of-age theme that Eugenides explored in his previous two novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex.
This novel, however, is quite different from the Pulitzer Prize winner’s previous works, both of which explore the presence of the morbid and the mythic amidst the mundanities of suburban, household life—one with a series of suicides committed by teenage sisters, and the other with the life of a hermaphrodite.
But The Marriage Plot diverges in setting and subject matter, chronicling life on Brown’s oh-so-hip, nonconformist, outspoken, early-eighties campus for Madeleine Hanna, a pretty WASP who is an avid Victorian literature fan. Madeleine’s English professor contends, “The novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely.”
Eugenides creates a sort of modern-day marriage plot, differing from those of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters which fill Madeleine’s bookshelf, and delves into her romantic relationships (or lack thereof) with Mitchell Grammaticus, a religion major from Grosse Pointe, and Leonard Bankhead, a bandana-wearing, tobacco-chewing scientist from Portland whom Madeleine meets making philosophical and literary musings in an edgy semiotics course.
Eugenides fractures the story, alternating between the three characters’ perspectives, slowly—and often laboriously—piecing them together to give a clear portrait of Madeleine and her respective relationships with Mitchell and Leonard. Mitchell longs for Madeleine, who never seems to whole-heartedly return the favor, and Leonard and Madeleine develop a passionate but drawn-out relationship conflicted by his manic depressive disorder.
Eugenides does well to characterize convincingly the emotions of human experience, most interestingly (yet also most briefly) those of Leonard’s manic depression. The three characters’ bouts of self-reflection are relatable and frank, and Eugenides is not afraid to shed some of the sentence acrobatics of his previous work in favor of a more vulnerable, conversational tone.
Though reading the novel is not the mystical, breathless experience of reading The Virgin Suicides, and in no way is it as grandiose and expansive as the American epic Middlesex, The Marriage Plot does engage the reader from start to finish, and the dissatisfaction invoked by its realism perhaps mimics the main characters’ dissatisfaction towards life.
And in a book that, in a way, is all about books—each character’s reading preferences are appraised, literary pretensions poked fun at, and “the marriage plot” echoes curiously in Madeleine’s own life—Eugenides causes the reader to wonder as the students in the semiotics course do: whether books can really be about anything, and if they can, whether they are about reality, or about other books—or, as in the case of this novel, both.