The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Having loved Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides’s bestselling novel from a few years back, I was really looking forward to reading The Marriage Plot – though I was a little put off by the title, as I’m not a fan of love stories per se. As it turns out, though, this novel is not premised on some chick’s plot to land a husband. Rather, the title comes from the subject of our protagonist’s college thesis, The Marriage Plot, popular in Victorian literature.
The novel opens with Madeleine waking up on the day of her college graduation with an acute hangover and an acute case of heartbreak over her recent breakup with Leonard, handsome, brilliant, funny, and, as it turns out, manic-depressive. We also meet the third character in this triangle: Mitchell, who loves and pines for Madeleine while Madeleine is busy pining for Leonard.
So it is a love story of a sort, but not sentimental or gushy. Each of the three players in this story are flawed – Leonard probably most tragically. Who will Madeleine end up with: the walking disaster she’s in love with, or the guy who wants to live a saintly life and yet can’t shake his fantasy of living happily ever after with Madeleine, and for whom she only has platonic feelings?
The book covers about a year in the life of these three. I have to say that one of the things I came away with was a feeling of almost terror about college life. Having never had a college experience myself, it’s stories like this that scare the daylights out of me pondering my own kids’ (hopefully) potential college experiences – the reckless, indulgent behavior! Ack! It’s amazing that most people come out of college in one piece.
What really impressed me was how well Mr. Eugenides had to get to know the subjects in his book: Madeleine is an English major specializing in Victorian literature, so the author had to become very educated about Victorian literature. Leonard is a biology major and is granted a fellowship doing research with yeast, so the author had to know his yeast – and Leonard is pretty severely manic-depressive, to boot, so Eugenides had to get to know manic-depression pretty intimately. Mitchell is a religious studies major who travels to India after graduation to volunteer with Mother Theresa at the Home for the Destitute and Dying, so the author had to get to know religion and Calcutta very well. This book was clearly based on a lot of intensive research. Impressive stuff.
I really enjoyed the book, though I don’t think it’s as good as Middlesex was. Definitely worth reading, though.