Although I enjoyed The Marriage Plot overall, ultimately it fell short of realizing its potential. Eugenides is no doubt a talented author, and clearly does not rush anything to publication, having only published 3 novels in almost 20 years, but this could possibly have done with a little extra tweaking.
This book has been out for a few months, so I’ll try to keep the synopsis short. The love triangle plot revolves around three Brown graduates, focusing on the year or so following their graduation in June, 1982. Mitchell, the author in thinly veiled fictional form, is an awkward Greek boy from Detroit, obsessed with religion and with a girl named Madeleine. Madeleine is a bibliophilist English major, struggling with the semiotic interpretation of literature, particularly with the plot type centering on the marriage of its main characters, most popular in 18th & early 19th century lit. She’s of Greek heritage and a privileged background, and is obsessed with Leonard. Leonard is supposed to be of more modest roots, from Portland, OR, and is wicked smart and bi-polar. Leonard is not obsessed with Mitchell and kind of likes Madeleine.
I’ll start with the virtues. Eugenides deftly captures all the emotional turmoil of transitioning from teenager child to young adult sent out into the “real” world. Everyone feels everything with vivid acuteness. Break-ups are earth-shattering, even if the relationship was a mere three months long. Everyone is afraid of rejection, though they all face a fair amount of it. The reader keenly feels every self-conscious apprehension. At one point, Madeleine becomes suddenly self-conscious when having a conversation with Leonard that isn’t going so well:
The conversation lapsed. And suddenly, to her surprise, Madeleine was flooded with panic. She felt the silence like a judgment against her. At the same time, her anxiety about the silence made it harder to speak.
(This is a scenario to which I can definitely relate – my now spouse can attest to that.) Their joys are also intensely felt, and I enjoyed the poser-ish ways of college students brought to light, the unfounded self-assuredness flaunted to mask secret insecurities, the bookshelves lined with appropriately intellectual books, the patronizing combativeness that passes as flirting, etc. And the state of things at the end of the book was ultimately satisfying.
Now, the vices. Madeleine is supposed to be a liberal, feminist character, but she spends most of the novel in reactive instead of active mode (even in the end, which took away from the otherwise satisfying ending). Her thesis is in part titled Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot, but we never find out what those thoughts actually are. She is a grown woman who calls her father “Daddy.” Is it just me that finds that weird and creepy? Mitchell, for most of the novel, is suffering his unrequited love for Madeleine, and is on a spiritual journey or mission of sorts. But his journey seems to be dismissed in the end. Leonard is mostly trying to deal with his bi-polar-ness, and we only get a glimpse into his story for one section, past the middle of the novel.
The story is ultimately about finding oneself, or coming to some hard-earned conclusions about one’s place in the world, and in that it succeeds, at least in part. The characters were interesting and relatable, and mostly likeable. It was a worthwhile read overall, as long as you can accept some of the elements that don’t quite work.