Review: The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

When The Marriage Plot dropped last year, I, as well as most of my campus, was eager to get at it. When I attended a panel on the Denver Publishing Institute, every head turned when a professor walked in with a fresh package from Amazon bearing the tome. I even took a picture of it, just for that extra hint of creepy. But I despaired of getting my own hands on a copy in a timely fashion, and let it simmer on a backburner for a while. So imagine my delight when I walked into my library at home and found not one, but two shiny copies on the New Fiction shelf. It’s part of the reason I was able to plow through A Feast for Crows in such a timely fashion…

The Marriage Plot opens in 1982 on Madeleine Hanna’s college graduation day. Hanna, an English literature major finding her own views on literature out-of-date as semiotics sweeps the field, is dating Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant but depressive scientist, a fact frowned upon by Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious studies major who believes that he will marry Madeleine. Over the course of their first year out of college, all three grow, change, and develop in ways both expected and unexpected.

I’ve mentioned how much I love Jeffrey Eugenides before; Cal Stephanides is a person, not a character, to me. Eugenides While The Virgin Suicides, while good, had the benefit of being Eugenides’ first outing in novel form in order to escape much comparison with Middlesex, which I read first and love best. So I was a bit disappointed when I found myself checking The Marriage Plot against Middlesex and settling down in the familiar setting of Greek-American culture, which Mitchell hails from. It was utterly unfair of me—these are two very different books focused on very different things. But Middlesex is still my favorite.

Here, Eugenides calmly circles around the lives of these three graduates, switching between their different perspectives and overlapping scenes. There are moments, wonderful moments, where an event one character regrets another doesn’t remember. It’s a novel focused on the connection between these three people, even if Mitchell’s connection is, more or less, in his mind. I wasn’t prepared to like Mitchell at first—his views on women are, uh, antiquated at best, and he’s introduced when Madeleine’s narrative mentions a letter he sent accusing her of being a “cocktease”. But his journey, both mental and physical, is about evolving beyond that, and Eugenides does so in a way that’s both tender and realistic. Leonard is easier to like initially, but his arrogance, especially towards the end, breaks him down. I suppose Mitchell evolves while Leonard doesn’t. And as for Madeleine? Well…

The Marriage Plot is ultimately a novel about circles of dependence—after all, it opens with Madeleine panicking because, on top of everything else, she has no idea where she’s going to live and what she’s going to do the summer after graduation. There’s been some commentary expressing concern about how Madeleine’s life seems entirely centered around these two men in her life, among other things, which is all quite valid. (And I will admit that knowing that this billboard exists fills me with both delight and shame.) But for me, it read as a phase Madeleine is going through. As Leonard breaks down and Mitchell grows up, Madeleine must learn to be on her own. She spends a lot of the novel feeling self-conscious about herself, a woman who is unfashionable and old-fashioned, and it’s easier for her to form an identity in the mold of Leonard’s helper-lover—it’s a position that’s both socially accepted and gives her power, rather than forge an entirely new path for herself on her own. Watching Madeleine understand that she wants Leonard as someone to take care of and how he is beyond her help is a way of watching her grow up. When she encounters Mitchell at the end of the story, their encounter says a lot about the novel as a whole; there comes a point when we all must move on.

I don’t know. I’m writing this review pretty far after the fact because I can’t summon that much enthusiasm for it, even though I enjoyed it. It’s fantastically written and captures the joy of literary criticism, as well as three interesting journeys into adulthood. But The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex loom so large in my imagination—just the other week, I found myself wondering about Cal after the events of Middlesex. Those are novels that have stuck with me since I read them, and to find The Marriage Plot thoughtful, well-written, but sliding off my imagination so quickly spooked me, I guess. It’s definitely not Eugenides at his best. Although that billboard will be sticking with me for some weeks yet…

Bottom line: The Marriage Plot follows three college graduates on their path to true maturity. It’s fantastically written, captures the highs and lows of literary criticism and love, but it slides off the imagination. Solid.

I rented this book from the public library.

6 thoughts on “Review: The Marriage Plot

  1. RE: Madeleine, I loved what Teresa said on the subject recently: I agree that these things are thorny, especially because we live in a world that’s still lacking in terms of female representation, but basically I want stories about all possible kinds of women, in every imaginable situation. That certainly includes stories about women whose concerns have nothing whatsoever to do with men, but I don’t think Madeleine’s preoccupation with romance (which is actually an oversimplication of what she goes through, but you know what I mean) makes her an anti-feminist character like some have claimed.

    Anyway, I also prefer Eugenides’ two other novels, but I still enjoyed this one so much.

    • Yeah, I saw that post, and I ultimately agree—I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t ignoring that reading of the novel. I don’t think she’s anti-feminist—she’s herself, and she has to learn to be independent over the course of the novel.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this one lots!

  2. I know I’m an odd duck in liking this more than Middlesex, which I just couldn’t quite warm up to, whereas I thought this captured that period of uncertainly after college so perfectly. And I didn’t come into this hoping for something like Middlesex–I was hoping for something different and got it 🙂

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about how Madeleine is going through a phase that she has to go through. To some degree, I think that’s true of all three characters. They’re all in transition, and some of them navigate it better than other.

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