Book Review: The Marriage Plot

I finished Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot last week, an embarrassing two weeks after I purchased it. Eugenides has long been a favorite writer– since I read The Virgin Suicides at fourteen. It has always remained in my top five favorite books. The next year, I moved on to Middlesex, which I found somewhat disappointing. I liked Middlesex, but didn’t love it. Imagine my excitement when I heard Eugenides was releasing a new novel.

From the beginning, the title made me nervous. Luckily, the title was not a reflection of the quality of the novel. But like Middlesex, I liked The Marriage Plot; I didn’t love it.

Madeline Hanna, a senior English major at Brown, writes her senior thesis on the marriage plot, a tidbit emphasized in the first couple pages, then promptly ignored for the remainder of the novel. In fact, much of the academic aspect of the novel focuses on a semiotics course Madeline takes, in which she meets the enigmatic Leonard. She dates him. During her time at Brown, Mitchell Grammaticus (no comment or judgement on that horrendous name), a religious studies major, is in love with her. So begins a love triangle that never really seems like a love triangle.

Most of the action unfolds after graduation, during which time Madeline moves in with Leonard while he completes a fellowship studying yeast. His behavior grows more and more erratic. Mitchell travels through Europe and volunteers in India, fulfilling some desire for self-discovery many over-educated college students face. It’s difficult to reveal anything about the plot from there without spoiling the entire book.

If the set up seems outlandish, it is at points, but Eugenides balances this well.

For the past week, I’ve been developing a theory about why I didn’t love Middlesex or The Marriage Plot.

The problem is scale.

In The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides created an insular world narrated by a plural group. In The Marriage Plot, the story spans several continents; characters are constantly in motion. Theydisperse in different directions. Eugenides then resorts to multiple perspectives; the third-person close narration switches between characters, never abruptly, but enough to disrupt the story line.

The plot grows so large, it splinters into several self-contained stories that occasionally intersect. The real problem with this is that it prevents the reader from truly identifying with any of the characters. When the reader is just getting to know Madeline, the story changes to Mitchell’s memories and travel.

A discussion of the title is inevitable. From the title alone, one knows what the story centers on. From the title alone, one knows what Eugenides is trying to achieve– a “modern” marriage plot novel. From the title alone, I hazarded a guess at the plot. It turned out– for the most part– to finish largely as I postulated. It’s easy to realize where the novel is going.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the novel. I loved it as I was reading. In fact, after the first eighty pages or so, I read the entire thing in one sitting. It’s a fun read and worthwhile I think, especially for those interested in theories of the novel.

This is a modern marriage plot, one that’s been highly dissected in culture and the media already. If you’ve ever read Jane Austen, Henry James, and the The New York Times “Modern Love” section, you should have a pretty good grasp of the subject matter.

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