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[519] The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides

” She was desperately in love with a boy who’d been hospitalized, twice, for manic depression. For the last four months, instead of focusing on her ‘career,’ she’d been nursing Leonard back to health, cooking his meals and cleaning his clothes, calming his anxieties and cheering him out of his frequent low moods. She’d been putting up with the serious side effects brought on by his new, higher dosage of lithium. . . . The last thing she felt herself to be was sensible or reasonable. She had just started living like a grown-up and she’d never felt more vulnerable, frightened, or confused in her life. ” (66)

The Marriage Plot, set in 1982, begins on the day Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus, and Leonard Bankhead graduate from Brown. Madeleine is a privileged, charming English major whose senior thesis focuses on a subject matter that is a relic from the past—the marriage plot, one centered exclusively on the courtship rituals between a man and a woman and the obstacles that faced the potential couple on its way to the nuptial payoff. It’s a popular source of entertainment during Jane Austen’s time. and thus lies at the heart of some of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, she, too, is entwined with two very different guys.

Every lover is mad, we are told. But can we imagine a madman in love.” (122)

The novel follows the life of the trio for a year after graduation. Madeleine has to decide between the two guys who both woo and mistreat her by turns. Leonard is smart and intense, always panics about his failures that might have foredoomed him to a life of ever-diminishing returns. He has a dysfunctional childhood, raised by alcoholic parents, but despite an unruly household, he manages to achieve late-breaking academic success. As much as Madeleine being the centrality, The Marriage Plot makes so little of her professional future but rather elaborates on Leonard’s mental illness that asserts itself from early on. She follows him to Pilgrims Lake, where Leonard takes up a fellowship position in a genetics lab.

There comes a moment, when you get lost in the woods, when the woods begin to feel like home. The further Leonard receded from other people, the more he relied on Madeleine, and the more he relied on her, the deeper she was willing to follow. (344)

Mitchell takes on a diametrically opposite tangent. Jarred by his failed relationship with Madeleine, who would not fall in love with him precisely because of his eligibility, he looks into the extinction of desire. Craving for a spiritual awakening, he embarks on a backpacking trip through Europe that ultimately deposits him into the slum of Calcutta. Aspired to perform the good work exemplified by Mother Teresa, he finds himself in charity but never gets over his squeamishness of the sick and dying. His quest for the riddle of existence comes to no avail. His religious exploration, for all that he invests in and for all of its genuine grounding of his soul, is ultimately dismissed as a sublimation of his desire for Madeleine.

He despised himself. He decided that his believing that Madeleine would marry him stemmed from the same credulity that had led him to think he could live a saintly life, tending the sick and dying in Calcutta . . . His dreaminess, his swooning—his intelligent stupidity—were responsible for everything that was idiotic about him, for his fantasy of marrying Madeleine and for the self-renunciation that hedged against the fantasy’s not coming true. (392)

Switching between perspectives of the three, Eugenides edges the plot forward slightly as he fills the back story. Despite the slow pace, I enjoy the many bookish references throughout the book. The story itself is wry, engaging and beautifully constructed. It’s more about coming of age—finding the foothold in the world and making decision that would affect one’s life, without knowing at the moment. So each will foray into adulthood at the expense of pain. Madeleine seems to recede behind the screens of Leonard’s needs, and her discovery of a vocation as a scholar in Victorian literature is not developed. Neither Leonard nor Mitchell has any evident direction into grown-up life. The novel, which is nothing like Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides, is more a close, introspective look at relationships in time. I had to plow through this book in the beginning, but it gets better and better that I was enthralled that I’m grateful for the earlier dull stretch.

406 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

4 Responses

  1. I found this one slow in parts though it was very good by the end!

  2. This one was already on my list and even more so now that I have read your review.

  3. […] [519] The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides […]

  4. […] Three of my most anticipated reads for the year didn’t live up to my expectations: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, and Lost Memory of Skin by […]

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