The Marriage Plot: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011. 416 pp)

Born in Detroit, Michigan on March 8, 1960, Jeffrey Eugenides is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer. As an undergraduate, he attended Brown University and later earned an M.A. in Creative Writing from Stanford University. Eugenides received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Fellowship for a short story he wrote in 1986. In 2002, his novel, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Ambassador Book Award. Eugenides works on faculty at Princeton University’s Program in Creative writing and lives in New Jersey with his wife and daughter.

The Bachelor/ette-ization of America

As a seemingly perpetual joke, The Bachelor/ette television series illustrates the perils of modern “love”. Each season, a group of mildly-intriguing-but-mostly-insane contestants compete for the affection of a suitor as if the final prize is a life lived happily ever after.
Yet outside a few positive examples, these contestants never walk down the aisle. Although we know the show ends poorly, the ratings remind us that, as a society, we knowingly erase the last failure and hope once more that some striking strangers will find true love.
Life is never happily ever after. With The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides explores the notion of romantic relationships and the modern shift toward a culture that chooses to destroy that very same relationship.
In a quotation that summarizes the main idea of the novel, Eugenides writes, regarding a university course taken by the protagonist, Madeleine,

“In [the professor’s] opinion, the novel [in the abstract, not referencing a specific work] had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely” (22).

Set in the 1980s at the end of a successful stint at Brown University and the immediate years afterward, The Marriage Plot explores the lives and relationships between three main characters.

The Girl: Madeleine

Madeleine grew up in an upper-middle-class home. The daughter of a college president, Madeleine values education but also desires to escape the rigid structure of her family. Bright, but not brilliant in any specific field, Madeleine majors in English. Her love of academic work compels her to continue her education, but she finds study rather difficult:

“She studied for the GRE using a sample booklet. The verbal section was easy. The math required brushing up on her high school algebra. The logic problems, however, were a defeat to the spirit. ‘At the annual dancers’ ball a number of dancers performed their favorite dance with their favorite partners. Alan danced the tango, while Beck watched the waltz. James and Charlotte were fantastic together. Keith was magnificent during his foxtrot and Simon excelled at rumba. Jessica danced with Alan. But Laura did not dance with Simon. Can you determine who danced with whom and which dance they each enjoyed?’ Logic wasn’t something Madeleine had been expressly taught. It seemed unfair to be asked about it. She did as the book suggested, diagramming the problems, placing Alan, Becky, James, Charlotte, Keith, Simon, Jessica, and Laura on the dance floor of her scrap paper, and pairing them according to the instructions. But their complicated transit wasn’t a subject Madeleine’s mind naturally followed. She wanted to know why James and Charlotte were fantastic together, and if Jessica and Alan were going out, and why Laura wouldn’t dance with Simon, and if Becky was upset, watching” (39).

The end of this long quotation signifies the core reason behind Madeleine’s struggles. Despite her love for study, she can’t help but focus on the relationships in life. College for Madeleine, is more about the people she meets than the topics she studies.

Boy One: Mitchell

Mitchell grew up in Detroit. Having met Madeleine at a party during their freshman year, Mitchell falls in love and forges a tight friendship with her. Unable to conjure the courage to shift the relationship from the “friend zone” to one of a more romantic nature, Mitchell and Madeleine eventually drift apart. Seeking to find meaning at the deeper levels of life, Mitchell transfers his energy from pursuing Madeleine to religious studies.

“There was no evident proselytizing motive. But the effect, for Mitchell, was to make him aware of the centrality of religion in human history, and more important, of the fact that religious feeling didn’t arise from going to church or reading the Bible but from the most private interior experiences, either of great joy or of staggering pain” (93).

Photo by Miqul

With no job prospects on the horizon and a slight desire to attend a school of divinity, Mitchell and a friend travel the world after graduation. From Europe to India, Mitchell’s pilgrimage strengthens his convictions both about Madeleine and about spirituality.

Boy Two: Leonard

Leonard was raised in Portland, Oregon.  Diagnosed with manic depression, Leonard succeeds in the Brown University classrooms but struggles with maintaining barriers in friendships. Sometimes delightful and compelling, while at other times overbearing and awkward, Leonard thrills and kills many friendships. Meeting Madeleine during a course on semiotics, the two immediately magnetize, spending every waking second with the other.
Majoring in biology and set to study at a prestigious fellowship, Leonard’s manic depression threatens to combust both his relationship and his career. Hoping to find a middle ground, he takes massive doses of lithium. Eugenides writes,

“Ten yards away, a statue of a Minuteman, spray-painted with graffiti, rose from the weedy grass. With their flintlock rifles, the Minutemen had fought for liberty and won. If they’d been on lithium, though, they wouldn’t have been Minutemen. They would have been Fifteen-minutemen, or Half-hour-men” (275).

Yet the medication kills the manic function that allowed Leonard to succeed with Madeleine and in the lab.

The Importance of Relationships

As the plot unfolds, these three characters interact on conflicting planes. With brilliant prose and in-depth introspection, Eugenides portrays compelling characters. Light on plot but nonetheless a captivating read, The Marriage Plot explores the meaning of relationships in the unfamiliar and frightening post-collegiate world. As the characters work toward finding identity, their interactions hurt.
We all know that the boy rarely ever finds the girl without leaving some sort of pain for the hopes of a third party. The Bachelor/ette, in fact, distills this idea into an 8 episode season. The happily-ever-after mentality does not exist, but that fact doesn’t require that we forget the importance of relationships. Even though some of Eugenides references might get lost on people unfamiliar with collegiate courses on English and religious studies, the whole package of The Marriage Plot offers a must read.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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5 Comments Leave a comment
  • Sam (Tiny Library)

    I only skimmed through this review as I have this book waiting for me. I'm glad you enjoyed it though, and will come back for a proper read once I have read it myself.

  • Sherry

    Hmmm, the more I hear about this book, the more I think I really ought to find a copy and read it.

  • Susan (Reading World)

    I haven't even read Middlesex yet, but I have to get to this author's books soon. I hear nothing but good things about them!

  • Alice@Supratentorial

    I've had this on my radar but I think your review convinced me to try it. Thanks!

  • Kathryn

    I'm sorry but I thought this was the most pretentious piece of literature that I have read in a long time. Obviously this author loves Brown University but he certainly painted a dismal picture of self important, depressing individuals that really have no ability to look beyond their own grim self images to see the world around them.

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