Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Euginides

Title: The Marriage Plot

Author: Jeffrey Euginides


Publisher: Picador

Format: Trade Paperback


Let’s start at the beginning, for it is here where Eugenides leads with his best foot forward.

 To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen , George Eliot, and the redoubtable Brontë sisters. There was a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-sized but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for “Artistic” or “Passionate,” thinking you could live with “Sensitive,” secretly fearing “Narcissistic” and “Domestic,” but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: “Incurably Romantic.”

The novel’s introduction is the perfect appetizer for the bibliophile. From Madeleine’s library, we see her affections for the Romantic era of fiction, clinging on to some nostalgic view of the life that soon awaits her.

The first paragraph of The Marriage Plot is quite intentional in its purpose. The truth is that Madeleine has a naive view of what life after marriage will be like. She clings to the works of Austen and Dickens where in the end there is usually some type of happily ever after. Her mother, on the other hand, has a first edition of a John Updike novel (Couples), whose works are filled with modernity, sexuality, and adversity than his past counterparts.

Madeleine, who has just graduated from college, is contemplating making a life with Leonard. He is her intellectual counterpart and the object of her desire, but he suffers from long bouts of manic depression and is unable to win the affections of Madeleine’s parents. Her mother in particular strives to be progressive, but cannot warm up to Leonard or his clinical depression. She would much rather see her daughter with Mitchell Grammaticus, an all-around nice guy with a fascination for Christian mysticism.

I will start out by saying I really enjoy Euginides’ writing. The Pulitzer Prize winner does not get caught up in his own genius, boring the reader with unpronounceable words or long, run-on sentences. He writes descriptively, but clearly, letting the story take the center stage with its own eloquence.

The premise of the novel is interesting. It is a modern antithesis to the Romantic Era. You know how the story goes (so many romantic comedies follow the pattern): a girl searching for love falls for wrong guy and right at the point where there is no turning back, the underdog good guy comes to sweep her off her feet. Madeleine, however, is not so fortunate to have these archetypes in her life. Leonard has his periods of lucidity where he is the life of the party, reminding Madeleine of why she first fell in love with him. Mitchell, who has a fascination with religion, ends up being sort of pathetic, lusting after Madeleine like a dorky teenager coveting the attractive girl in an advanced English class.

Like Leonard’s depression, the experience of reading The Marriage Plot was up and down for me. He certainly was the strongest character of the three, but in his fits of depression, I found myself slogging through the narrative, waiting for Madeleine to do something other than suffer with him. Madeleine’s naivete was more frustrating than anything. Leonard did everything he could to push her away, yet she remained as faithful as a Golden Retriever, suffering verbal abuse and apathy for days on end. Mitchell was the weakest character of the three, who felt compelled to go on a year-long mission trip, only to find that he didn’t have the passion to help the lowliest of people. Like Madeleine, he was caught up in a romantic view of what religion should be — a faith where he sets the rules and his spiritual (and emotional) fulfillment comes with it.

The Marriage Plot is not nearly as strong as Middlesex, but I still found the novel worth reading. The characters never quite reach any climactic change and Eugenides’ antithesis almost comes across a bit gimmicky, as each partakes in their role of self-depreciating antiheroes. Despite these flaws, the novel deals with real emotion and there are some wonderful exchanges (particularly in the beginning of the novel) that at times made me laugh aloud.

For those who looking for a John Updike-like novel of self-discovery, The Marriage Plot has its merits. It has good writing and complex enough characters to keep one interested. If you’re new to Euginides, you may as well start with Middlesex for a better-balanced novel.

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