Contemporary Fiction / Highly Recommended

Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot is the long-awaited novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, the author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2003).  Eugenides is an author you should read if you haven’t — each of his novels is completely unique and will stay in your head for years.

The Marriage Plot seems like a fairly “normal” story compared to Virgin Suicides and Middlesex.  Unlike Middlesex’s huge scope of years and locations, Marriage Plot focuses on a few years in the lives of Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell as they graduate college and begin to discover who they are.

Eugenides seems to recognize what a pivotal time in life those first few years after college are.  The decisions we make about relationships, careers, whether to go to graduate school, or whether to just roam for a while, all have lasting implications.  The average twenty-one or twenty-two year old coming out of college might be self-centered and immature but these are still decisions that will affect their lives for years.  Can they be undone later?  Sure.  But not without consequences.  Eugenides shows us, compellingly, how little we know about ourselves at this time in our lives, and how much we have to think about.

The novel begins on graduation day.  Madeleine Hanna wakes up to her doorbell ringing, her parents outside.  She’s hung over, wearing a stained, borrowed dress from the night before, and feels like her life is falling apart because she broke up with her boyfriend, Leonard, and has no idea where she’s going to live or whether she got into a graduate program.  Her parents know none of this of course.

Madeleine has a contentious relationship with her friend Mitchell, who is in love with her but who feels she’s treated him badly.  Mitchell is off to spend the year after graduation traveling through Europe and India with a friend.  He’s lined up a sort-of research job with a professor but otherwise has no specific timeline or plans for the future.

Leonard is someone we’ll get to know later in the book, so for now all we know is that his relationship with Madeleine has ended and she’s devastated.  Eugenides will later fill in all the details of how these three characters got to know each other, and what they come to mean to each other.  He shows us the same events, during college and after graduation, from each character’s perspective.

The characters are very real, and very sympathetic, even though they’re far from perfect.  Madeleine is beautiful, privileged, and comes from a happy supportive family.  She’s the “normal” girl, the one you probably envied in school.  I know I did.  She’s smart, but not off-puttingly smart, and she’s got all the advantages.  But at the same time, her life is a mess.

Mitchell is the smart guy – you know he’ll do okay whatever he decides to do, but he’s also the kid that got picked on, who doesn’t have the confidence to go after the pretty girl.  He’s the quintessential “nice guy”, the friend.

Leonard is the guy you fall for in college – he’s brainy but also an independent thinker.  He’s kind of a rebel.  He’s good-looking and confident.  If Mitchell is the guy who cares too much what women think of him, Leonard is the guy who doesn’t care at all.  And of course that means he gets the girl.

If you think these characters sound superficial, you’d be wrong.  Eugenides develops each one fully.  By showing us each of their perspectives, we see how little the three characters understand each other.  Each of them is trying to get by, the best they can.

As a former English major, I enjoyed Eugenides’ attention to literature and how that influences these characters. His descriptions of books can be overwhelming at times, but when you’re a college student, or a post-grad, what you study and how you study are important.  The characters judge each other constantly by what they read and how they talk about what they read.  This book is almost an homage to different kinds of literature.  The title, for example, refers to a class Madeleine takes on Victorian literature and “the marriage plot”, a subject that later becomes her thesis.  The marriage plot refers to works by authors such as Jane Austen, and the importance marriage plays in Victorian life.  The topic is contrasted with later works of literature, such as Middlemarch, and the reality of modern-day marriage.  Madeleine’s instructor notes that the marriage plot as a story device would be almost irrelevant today, because people can divorce and remarry so easily.

I think everyone will read this book a little differently depending on their age.  For me it brought to mind the decisions that could have been made when I graduated college, and that pivotal, exciting but so-very-sad graduation day.  That was a day I knew a lot of happy times were ending.  I had everything going for me – I’d be moving to California in the fall with my boyfriend, and going to one of the best law schools.  But still it felt like the one time in my life that was relatively care-free was ending.  You don’t get to explore anymore; you’ve made your choices.  And then there’s that difficult, awkward summer of not knowing what to do with yourself, of living with your family, of waiting.  I remember packing up my apartment, negotiating with two families, and feeling incredibly sad — sad to give up studying literature, sad to leave my friends, and sad to leave the life of a college student.

I’ve never stopped missing college, actually. And I’ve never stopped regretting all the things I might have done after graduation, even when it seems like everything is going right.

Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard may seem like they have it easy.  They don’t. There are no right or wrong decisions, there’s just the path you go down and the one you don’t.  But we don’t get to go back and do that time in our lives over.

The Marriage Plot is considered by most critics to be one of the best books of 2011, and I completely agree.

5 thoughts on “Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

  1. I’ve recently started this as well and I am loving it. I have been having so much trouble reading lately because of baby brain, but this book hasn’t posed me a problem at all. I love the characters. It is incredibly American, which means I find it a little hard to relate to at times (American university/college and the Australian university experience are incredibly different), but the growing you do in your early twenties is captured wonderfully so far

    • I just finished Norwegian Wood, which is about college years from the Japanese perspective. It’s interesting to see the differences. The Marriage Plot definitely felt like my college experience, although I didn’t go to an Ivy League school.

  2. This sounds like a wonderful book. There are 8 holds on it at the local library but I look forward to reading it when it becomes available. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

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