Review: The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

I’ll be the first to concede that I enjoy pretty much everything I read—not just because I happen to have impeccable literary taste (kidding) but also because I firmly believe there is something of value in all but the very worst books, and I plant myself firmly in the so-called “reader response” camp of literary criticism: Novels, which do not exist in vaccums,  may be assessed based on the unique reactions they elicit in individual readers, making said reader’s experience an integral part of the work itself. On that note, while I recognize that Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, isn’t “perfect” in any real sense, I can’t remember enjoying a contemporary novel (with the possible exceptions of anything in Curtis Sittenfeld’s oeuvre) more. I loved every single second of it, and I’m not sure there’s a better feeling in this world than immersing yourself in a book you hope never ends.  

The Marriage Plot opens on graduation day at Brown University (Eungenides’s alma mater) in 1982, jumps back in time to provide the back stories of the three principal characters and the love triangle that consumes them, and then follows their first year of “adulthood,” out of the college cocoon. Madeleine Hanna is a pretty, WASP-y English major who’s a fan of Wharton and James and Austen and Eliot—in other words, good stories, stories that have fallen out of favor in the midst of the Derrida and Barthes-dominated semiotics revolution in the Brown English department. Madeleine’s old and old-fashioned thesis advisor extolls, as Eugenides himself does, “the marriage plot,” a literary device rendered obsolete by feminism and modernism. “In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had 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. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? . . . Marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t. You had to read historical fiction. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies. Afghani novels, Indian novels. You had to go, literarily speaking, back in time.” Eugenides’s third novel is an attempt to revive the old tropes, and he successfully makes the case for the return of the traditional novel, which appears to the reader as nothing less than fresh, innovative and endlessly entertaining.

Madeleine’s long-suffering friend and admirer, Mitchell Grammaticus (who’s pretty clearly based on Eugenides himself) is a religious studies major from Detroit attempting to figure out if and how faith fits into his own life. Madeleine’s boyfriend is Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant, polymathic and manic-depressive scientist who may or may not be at least partially based on David Foster Wallace. Reviewers have touted Leonard as the best part of the novel, though he gets the least page time, and he’s certainly the only character that, upon cursory examination, suffers from an affliction other than what could be written off as self-indulgence. The Marriage Plot, though, is about privilege and how people respond to it: Madeleine, who has never lacked for male attention, vowed never to get seriously involved with a man who didn’t like his parents, let alone whose mental instability would take over her life; Mitchell decides to head to Calcutta after backpacking through Europe to volunteer for Mother Teresa, whose orphanage he regrets  he’s sickened and confounded by. Even Leonard demonstrates how a grade-A brain, an Ivy League education, a prestigious scientific fellowship and a devoted girlfriend aren’t enough to procure success, happiness or stability. These are young adults with every advantage, hurled into circumstances they have no control over and which threaten to destroy what they’ve staked their ideals and desires upon.

Of course, the book’s also about love (both unrequited and the actual, more difficult kind), religion, intellectual exploration, erudition, academia, books. The Marriage Plot is, refreshingly, an encomium to books of all kinds, and to reading as the path to self-discovery (for instance, we’re introduced to Madeleine via the contents of her bookshelves).  Eugenides expertly skewers college-student-y intellectual jargon and professorial affectations while maintaining an underlying and deep-seated affection for it all. Of Madeleine’s nine fellow classmates in Semiotics 211, “eight had taken Introduction to Semiotic Theory. This was visually apparent at the first class meeting. Lounging around the seminar table, when Madeleine came into the room from the wintry weather outside, were eight people in black T-shirts and ripped black jeans. A few had razored off the necks or sleeves of their T-shirts. There was something creepy about one guy’s face—it was like a baby’s face that had grown whiskers—and it took Madeleine a full minute to realize that he’d shaved off his eyebrows. Everyone in the room was so spectral-looking that Madeleine’s natural healthiness seemed suspect, like a vote for Reagan.

“[Professor] Zipperstein asked the students to introduce themselves and explain why they were taking the seminar. The boy without eyebrows spoke up first. ‘Um, let’s see. I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized. Like, if I tell you that my name is Thurston Meems and that I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, will you know who I am? O.K. My name’s Thurston and I’m from Stamford, Connecticut. I’m taking this course because I read Of Grammatology last summer and it blew my mind.'”

Later on in the semester, “Zipperstein was in a lively mood. He’d just returned from a conference in New York, dressed differently than usual. Listening to him talk about the paper he’d given at the New School, Madeleine suddenly understood. Semiotics was the form Zipperstein’s midlife crisis had taken. Becoming a semiotician allowed Zipperstein to wear a leather jacket, to fly off to Douglas Sirk retrospectives in Vancouver, and to get all the sexy waifs in his classes. Instead of leaving his wife, Zipperstein had left the English department. Instead of buying a sports car, he’d bought deconstruction.

“He sat at the seminar table now and started speaking: ‘I hope you read the Semiotext(e) for this week. Apropos of Lyotard, and in homage to Gertrude Stein, let me suggest the following: the thing about desire is that there is no there there.’ That was it. That was Zipperstein’s prompt. He sat before them, blinking, waiting for somebody to reply. He appeared to have all the patience in the world. Madeleine had wanted to know what semiotics was. She’d wanted to know what the fuss was about. Well, now she felt she knew.”

On the opposite end of the pedagogical spectrum, there’s the professor of “Religion and Alienation 20th Century Culture,” a religious-studies class Mitchell takes his final semester at Brown. “At the first class meeting, the professor, a severe-looking man named Hermann Richter, surveyed with suspicion the forty or so students packed into the classroom. Lifting his chin, he warned in a stern tone, ‘This is a rigorous, comprehensive, analytical course in twentieth-century religious thought. Any of you who think a little something in alienation might do should think otherwise.’

“Glowering, Richter handed out the syllabus. It included Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Auguste Comte and Positivism: The Essential Writings, Tillich’s The Courage to Be, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and The Drama of Atheist Humanism by Henri de Lubac. Around the room, students’ faces fell. People had been hoping for The Stranger, which they’d already read in high school. At the next class meeting, fewer than fifteen kids remained.”

I was a big fan of Mitchell. Despite Leonard’s very believable and moving struggle with mental illness, I think it’s Mitchell’s quest for intellectual and romantic enlightenment that drives the story. I’m decidedly non-religious, but am drawn to books that focus on spiritual struggles (particularly Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, one of my all-time desert-island favorite novels) and The Marriage Plot manages to drive home the varieties of religious experience in a way that even the most die-hard atheists among us can probably relate to on some level. Mitchell’s search is, at its heart, a search for meaning but, at the same time, his dalliance with the Christian faith can be contextually explained: He’s an American baptized in the Greek Orthodox church who’s spent his formative years reading books—James, Milton, even Tolstoy (and one may argue that, culturally, Russian writers are included in the Western canon)—that prioritize Christian (i.e., Western) traditions. Mitchell gravitates toward Christianity for much the same reasons he’s pulled toward Madeleine: because, essentially, it’s all he knows. Despite his considerable intelligence, Mitchell is young and inexperienced; his ideas about sexuality,  spirituality and even literature are limited by virtue of his age and the protective shell of an elite college campus (the privilege thing again). Actual religious engagement—like an actual romance with Madeleine, the “perfect girl”—is so enticing precisely because it has heretofore proven elusive. What Mitchell considers valuable at a certain stage of his life may very well be, but he doesn’t have an accurate perspective on them yet.

Above all, though, The Marriage Plot is both exceedingly smart and genuinely fun, a rare combination indeed. I was fairly immune to the gossip surrounding the book (I regret to say I’ve never read anything by David Foster Wallace, though I hope to change that soon), and in the end that’s all white noise. Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell aren’t just simulacrums of the characters that populated Eugenides’s college years and young adulthood; they’re fully realized, imperfect and fascinating people. As is always the case in a great novel.

That said, also see: New York magazine’s piece on the mingling of truth and fiction in The Marriage Plot; Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review; an interview with Eugenides in The Daily Beast; and Michael Greenberg’s review in The New York Review of Books. Oh, and they’re also making a movie.

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