Monday, November 28, 2011

The Marriage Plot

Considering what author Jeffrey Eugenides has accomplished (including a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel) in his relatively brief career, it is sometimes difficult to remember that he has written only three novels. The Marriage Plot is, in fact, the author’s first novel in roughly ten years.  Much like both of his previous novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex (the prizewinner), this one is a rather dark look at characters struggling to find their place in life before it is too late.  And, as in those previous novels, none of the main characters in The Marriage Plot have an easy time of it.

The novel begins in the early 1980s, just as Madeleine Hanna, a Brown University student who is besotted by the works of writers like Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James, makes a decision that will set the course of her life for at least the rest of the decade.  It is graduation day, and Madeleine is about to meet her parents for the ceremony marking her achievement. Then she learns that her former lover, the ultra-charismatic Leonard Bankhead, is being held for treatment in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital.  Madeleine, though she does not spend much time thinking about it, stands at a crossroad.  Does she abandon Leonard, graduate with the rest of her class, and move on with the rest of her life - or does she rush to his side and rededicate herself to their strange relationship? 

Her decision to rush to the hospital will prove to be critical not only to the futures of Madeline and Leonard, but also to the third leg of their almost four-year-old “love” triangle, Mitchell Grammaticus, the religious studies major who has convinced himself that Madeleine is destined to be his wife, not Leonard’s.  Despite the fact that Leonard is largely oblivious of his existence, and that Madeleine treats him almost as an afterthought, Mitchell is impressively persistent in believing that she will eventually choose him over Leonard.

The Marriage Plot is Jeffrey Eugenides’s exploration of the plotline used in all those Victorian novels that began with “the suitors, the proposals, the misunderstandings – but after the wedding ceremony they kept on going.  These novels followed their spirited, intelligent heroines…into their disappointing married lives, and it was here that the marriage plot reached its greatest artistic expression” (pages 22-23).  While Eugenides does follow the form, some readers will wonder how effectively he does so.

Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides presents the evolving relationships between Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell by allowing each of his characters to speak, even to occasionally retelling events originally witnessed from one character’s point-of-view from the perspective of another character involved in the incident.  This technique, combined with long, alternating chapters told from the first person perspective of each of the three, allows the author to develop his protagonists fully. Surprisingly, even with all of that, the characters, especially Mitchell, do not impress as being particularly believable ones. 

The Marriage Plot, as are both of the author’s previous works, is interesting, but readers should decide for themselves whether this one measures up to the hype it has received.  The novel is worth a look, if just to be able to understand what others are saying about it – and why.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. I've yet to read any of his work but do have a signed copy of this one on my shelves at home, just waiting to be read. On the other hand, I might try Middlesex first since that seems like it got better reviews overall.

  2. Thank you for this review, Sam. I sent out the novel Middlesex to my online Reading Partner and have a copy myself, although I have not ever read Jeffrey Eugenides at all. We plan on reading it, and it's good to know that an experienced reader like yourself has some great things to say about these former novels.

  3. "Middlesex" is generally still considered his best work, and I did pretty much like that one - just could not buy the main character's nonchalance when it came to a rather dramatic ending. But, then again, that's kind of my problem with all three novels, Kathleen. They are definitely good but each one had something that sort of bugged me and kept me from "loving" them.

  4. Cip, I'll look forward to your opinion. There's just something about the man's books that keeps me from being a complete fan of his work. But I've read all three of the novels, so that probably says something positive about them.