The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Fourth Estate 2011
The Marriage Plot was a recommendation from a friend of mine, and although our tastes aren’t all too similar, our shared love of Austen was good enough reason to trust her on this. Turns out it was a good idea. I was a little apprehensive, mostly because with literary fiction it’s hard to form expectations, but Marriage Plot is pretty easy to fly through. The world the characters find themselves in is that of fresh Brown graduates in the 1980s, with all the uncertainty, the big plans, and the dreams. At the same time, Eugenides takes the opportunity to discuss relationships, faith, mental illness, and, as the title suggests, the way novels of a certain kind are built. This whiffs of postmodernsim, but manages to keep out of that just enough to make me narrow my eyes but continue anyway.
There are three main characters, one woman and two men. The novel starts with Madeleine, the English major, who writes her senior thesis on the marriage plot. This is something I like: academia discussed through those who participate in it. Madeleine has dreams and aspirations I recognise, and her world is familiar. I even jotted down some works of literary theory that are mentioned (and I dearly wish this book came with a bibliography). In class, Madeleine meets the other protagonists, the theology major Mitchell and the biologist Leonard, the former who falls in love with her and the latter with whom she falls in love with. Fine and dandy, credible relationship stuff, nothing too skeevy, seems pretty standard.
Now we get to what annoys me. I’m not going to go into detail about the plot, worry not, but I very much resent the implication that Madeleine’s choices in life are wrong, and the men are victims and the enlightened. This seems to reflect strongly what Leslie W. Rabine describes as “the difference between masculine fulfilment in transcendence and feminine fulfilment in relationships” (Reading the Romantic Heroine: Text, History, Ideology, 1985; 110): the implication by the end of the novel seems to be that personal enlightenment is more desirable and worth aspiring to than meaningful relationships.
Apart from the above, I don’t really have any bones to pick with this novel. In fact, it might be an interesting one to study, as I’m not quite convinced as to what the purpose in titling it The Marriage Plot is in relation to the narrative. Be that as it may, it’s an entertaining read that demonstrates skill in writing, although it doesn’t exactly manage to enchant me. It’s also thoroughly researched, which at times shows through lengthy descriptions of things I have very little interest in.
So therefore the three-star rating: I have an issue with the note the novel ends on and merely liked the book well enough as opposed to loving it. At the same time, it is very readable and contains elements I find interesting. I would also like to mention that there is a distinct resemblance to the secondary plot of Anna Karenina, which was interesting and worth a closer look – I noticed it too late to actually keep an eye on it, so I’m not entirely sure whether I’m just imagining things.