I’m not quite sure what I think of Jeffrey Eugenides as a writer, so it’s perhaps strange that I’ve read all three of his novels. Eugenides is a strong writer, in that once I start to read his writing, it’s hard to put down. Yet I don’t feel satisfied when I get to the end. Perhaps because he often deals with unsettling content (more so in The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex than this most recent novel). Perhaps because I don’t quite enjoy his characters, however interested I may become in them.
Of the three Eugenides novels I’ve now read, I enjoyed The Marriage Plot the most. It deals with post-university life, religion, romance and marriage, and mental illness – all things I’ve had a personal interest or connection to over the years.
The novel opens on graduation day at Brown University. We meet Madeleine Hanna, hung over, broken-hearted and about to graduate. The story takes us through the summer and the first year following this post-secondary graduation. Along with Madeleine we meet her friend, Mitchell Grammaticus, and her sometimes lover, Leonard Bankhead. Personally, I found Mitchell’s storyline to be the most interesting. While the first part of the novel focuses heavily on Madeleine and is told primarily from her perspective, I had trouble being truly interested because I simply didn’t feel much sympathy for Madeleine.
I couldn’t quite pinpoint what bothered me about the character of Madeleine until this thought from Mitchell’s perspective:
In Madeleine’s face was a stupidity Mitchell had never seen before. It was the stupidity of all normal people. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.
Madeleine, certainly at the beginning of the novel, is the kind of upper middle class, beautiful girl, who has had everything in life handed to her. And as a result, she has very little dimension. She has nothing holding her back in life, and yet she doesn’t succeed. Finally, through the course of the novel, she makes one terrible decision that leads to a continuous series of terrible decisions. Even then, truthfully, I had trouble empathizing with her. I’m not sure there’s much excuse for an educated young woman to remain as ignorant of the life around her as Madeleine does. Does Eugenides think this is the ignorance of twentysomething girls? Is he trying to make a statement against the sheltered, moneyed, suburban upbringing Madeleine’s parents give her? I’m not sure. Certainly, Eugenides isn’t holding Madeleine up as any sort of shining example but my dissatisfaction from the novel comes partly from the fact that I’m not sure, at the end, if Madeleine has really changed. She is surrounded by safety nets and people who want to help her, which certainly isn’t the reality for every young woman who finds herself drifting through life after a university education.
I found Mitchell’s post-grad journey much more interesting. We meet a young man, in love with a girl who doesn’t feel the same way and who frustrates him greatly, looking for some greater purpose to his life. As Mitchell journeys through Europe and then India, he is also going on a personal spiritual journey. Not quite a pilgrimage, though he eventually reaches Calcutta – the spot he’s always been heading towards, in more ways than one. Mitchell goes through a real change. He returns home different and though we aren’t shown all the ways his life will be altered, we get a sense of a man who has learned something throughout the course of the novel.
Eugenides makes the interesting choice to set The Marriage Plot in the early 1980s. Part of me thinks he may simply have done this because he was born in 1960 and so likely graduated from university around the time of Madeleine and Mitchell. (Wikipedia tells me I’m right about this, as well as the fact that Eugenides also graduated from Brown.) The retro setting offers some interesting comparisons to our current era. The characters worry about recession, a lack of jobs – all concerns that graduates today face as well. It’s a timely reminder that some fears are cyclical. Part of me wished Eugenides took more advantage of his 1980s setting with more timely references. By and large, the novel could be set currently and be altered very little. But overall I was happy with his choices.
One of the strongest parts of the novel is the downward mental spiral of Leonard Bankhead. I think Eugenides did a terrific job of describing the highs and lows of Leonard’s manic-depression. And while I didn’t have much sympathy for Madeleine as she went along with Leonard, Eugenides truly made me care about a character who seemed to start out as hopelessly unlikeable.
The book’s title references the Victorian novels that Madeleine loves and studies, the ones who always seem to end with a marriage. Knowing this gives this novel a nice momentum as we read through, waiting to see how Eugenides will turn that trope around.