Not too long ago I read a piece on NPR about Jeffery Eugenides new novel The Marriage Plot , in which he lamented not being a writer of a time when “social constrictions were still normative and they could still write marriage plots.” He admitted that it is impossible to write a marriage plot now, but that he basically wanted to “traffic in the same ideas.” Admittedly, though, this information changed my reading of the novel quite a bit. I kept trying to see it as an attempt at reviving the Victorian era romance, and seeing as those are some of the novels dearest to my heart, I really couldn’t resist the parallels and comparisons.
Like any good marriage plot, this novel is rife with social satire, subdued passion, and class issues. Set in the 1980’s at Brown University (Because where else to revive the marriage plot than an Ivy League?), our heroine is the lovely Ms. Madeline Hanna. A rich girl from Prettybrook, New Jersey, who struggles with the classic young-adult divide between being normative and being divergent -- as she, like many of us, falls just short of exceptional -- and who often uses her looks to get her way. In this classic love triangle her suitors are her sometimes boyfriend, the infuriatingly brilliant, impoverished, self-absorbed and manic-depressive Leonard Bankhead. And Mitchell Grammaticus, a young man too intelligent for his aspirations of divinity; Mitchell longs for God, but would happily settle for the affections of Madeline Hanna.
In the beginning of the novel, I was wondering if I even wanted to make it through. I found Madeline to be petulant, and I really didn’t get what she saw in Leonard, who I just wanted to shake furiously and say “I don’t care if you had a hard childhood, that doesn’t give you license to be an asshole!”, and Mitchell was too bland to make up for my misgivings. My initial feeling was that, in attempting to revive something anachronistic, he succeeded in creating a novel whose characters fell short of being as lovable as any of Austen’s and whose plot was too simple to be as engaging as that of Dickens or Emily Bronte. Then I kept reading.
Madeline Hanna has many rules. She tries to stay away from people who are depressed, she will shamelessly come onto a guy, but he absolutely has to make the first move, and they, of course, at least have to be her intellectual equals (except when she dated that male model, but who could blame her?). It’s this sort of idealism and narrow-mindedness that make you feel a lot of empathy for Madeline and her struggles with love and intellect. Madeline is an English major for, as Jeffrey Eugenides puts it “the purest of reasons”, because she loves to read, and she particularly loves Victorian literature. At the same time, she struggles with ideas such as love and romance. Feeling they’re too trite for someone as modern and well educated as she, and Leonard only adds fuel to those blazes of self-doubt, with his constant analyzing of love as a concept itself, deriding it and her feelings, because, as Eugenides so aptly states, “College isn’t like real life. In real life, people drop names for their recognition. In college, people drop names for their obscurity.” And it was once Madeline and Leonard broke-up for the first time, and we meet her crying in her bedroom with a book and a jar of peanut butter, that I was with Madeline all the way.
But listen to me go on about Madeline and her lovelorn angst! There is so much more going on in this book than that. We have Leonard, a very well devised character whose greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. Leonard’s manic-depression, it is hinted at, is part of his charm. So many people love Leonard, and it’s because when he’s up he’s on top of the world. This idea that Leonard’s mental illness is a benefit to him as well as a curse is a huge part of the story and a very interesting take on the disease. In fact, it makes the fact that Leonard can be such an awful person almost expected, in that sort of “oh, you know how geniuses are” sort of way, and at times I did feel deeply for him, even if I could never fully forgive him his wrong doings.
Then we have Mitchell, who being Greek, from Michigan, and having done spiritual service in Calcutta, is obviously the most autobiographical of the characters. Mitchell’s struggles with God and his dueling desires to let go and believe and to value his natural inclination for reason are something that I believe many people can relate to.
Layered over all of these explorations of heart, mind, and spirit is a healthy dose of satire and a lot of love. While Eugenides seems to be constantly poking fun at the drama of youth and politics of academia, he also treats his characters very well. At this novel’s best, it is a novel that is very aware of itself. It is aware of the fact that its characters are stereotypes, but that they are also multi-faceted and deeply flawed. Aware that the marriage plot no longer exists, but that it still exists in our imaginations and therefore we long for it.
Ultimately though, while I think Eugenides did as excellent a job as anyone could trying to bring out classist romance in a time of social melding, it’s his insights into human emotion that will make this novel memorable.
Jeffery Eugenides has the talent to do what I believe is the signature of any great novelist – he is able to describe me in way that I never knew I needed to be described. He gets at the heart of an idea or feeling that had been lying dormant inside of me waiting to be voiced. Not an emotion that I was already aware of that he describes more aptly, many people can do that, but one that I didn’t even know I was longing to meet. Eugenides' insights into the nature of love and longing are priceless, and for me, were worth every second of the novel.
While this book didn’t blow me away the way Middlesex did, I would recommend it. Maybe it won’t become one of the great literary works of our time, but I did actually end a conversation once by saying “Okay, I really gotta go. One of the main character’s suitors got a letter from her, and I really want to know if she loves him or not.” I’d say that’s a victory if I ever heard one.