After two vigorous and haunting novels, Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, another Jeffrey Eugenides was an exciting prospect but The Marriage Plot is a rum do! There seems to be a lot more going on here than is immediately apparent in the deceptively simple narrative.
On the surface, it appears straightforward involving a triangle of students in their final year in Brown University in the eighties [Eugenides' own alma mater]. Madeleine is pretty, WASP, rich, an English major student with a passion for the works of Austen, James and Eliot. Her final year dissertation centres on the marriage plots in their works. However, in the course of the year she began hearing people dropping names like Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard and, intrigued, she signs up for a Semiotics module where she meets the second of our protagonists, the love of her life, Leonard. Leonard is a Biology and Philosophy major, poor, of humble origins and, as we discover, a manic depressive. Madeleine, however, is smitten, to the distress of her 'treasured friend' Mitchell Grammaticus, a religion major, who is totally devoted to both God and Madeleine, convinced that one day she will be his.
The book opens on Graduation Day when Madeleine is going to confront her parents with her decision to go with Leonard to Cape Cod where he has secured a research fellowship in a lab and to cohabit with him. Mitchell is more than unhappy with this decision but still considers God is on his side in the long term and is planning to take the obligatory year out with the standard tour of Europe and India where - if you're into religion - they have everything. The book goes forward then with the progresss of the three over the following year.
Madeleine is given the lion's share of the narrative and Eugenides tells it convincingly in a well constructed manner. Nevertheless, his treatment of her is shallow in many respects. While Leonard and Mitchell pretty much limp from day to day, Madeleine has a firm plan and is applying to graduate school with a definite project on Victorian novelists in mind. We hear nothing however of her progress with her work and Eugenides occupies himself almost entirely with her relationship with Leonard and, to a lesser degree, with Mitchell. At the same time, there is no 'marriage plot' as such. Rather, underlying the story, is a polemic against modernism and the seeming pretentiousness of students taken with the new philosophers of semiotics and deconstruction. He pokes fun at a student who ridicules the idea that a book should be 'about' anything. At her first class meeting in semiotics, eight of the ten students showed up in black t-shirts and ripped black jeans, one with his eyebrows shaved off! It seems that Eugenides is turning his back on the inventiveness of his earlier work and the idea of experimentation in favour of social realism and the traditional narrative. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the character of Madeleine is drawn with such empathy. In a recent interview with Eileen Battersby, Eugenides said he loved the 19th century novels and it does seem as that is what he trying to achieve with this work. But the 19th century novels worked because they reflected the zeitgeist of the time and the institution of marriage was a commitment of a totally different nature from today. To impose such a structure on the mores of the 21st century does not convince which possibly explains the ending.
Eugenides tells his story with in a straightforward fashion - more Updike than Franzen - and he tells it well. His characters are likeable, even the self-destructing Leonard - but it lacks the originality of both Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. It is not a little autobiographical including not only his time in Brown but also his own stint working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta from whom Mitchell eventually flees! One could almost forgive him - but not quite - for his diatribe against Europeans who, he claims in one section, had produced no decent rock music of their own and 'whose relationship to the sixties ... was essentially spectatorial'. I know some French and German students who might heartily disagree!
It is an easy read but it is not a literary masterpiece sadly.