“She’d become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.”
It’s no secret that I am a big Jeffrey Eugenides fan, starting with yet unsurpassed Middlesex, a novel I read a number of years ago now but one that has always stayed with me (another for you to seek out narf77). I have enjoyed all his books and this one is no exception. Perhaps not quite up to the dazzling standards of Middlesex, but still a fantastic read.
The Marriage Plot is set in the early 1980s and conveys the story of Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus (what a great surname!!) as they finish their respective university courses and struggle to find their place in the wider world. Madeleine is an English major focusing on Victorian novels and novelists like Jane Austin – how could I not relate to her. She comes from a decidedly upper middle class family with a father who was himself the head of a small university. Academia seems an obvious choice for her future. The other two characters, Leonard, a biology major with an intense yet charismatic personality and severe manic depression (bipolar?), and Mitchell, a reserved but eccentric religious studies major vie for Madeleine’s love and attention. The story is essentially one of transition, as the three attempt to navigate the path from the protected world of university where drinking, sleeping late and sleeping around are all accepted practices on any day of the week, to a world which cares little about them and where nothing is handed to them on a silver platter. In turn each faces a crises, a turning point where the decisions they make will have lasting and sometimes devastating effects. What seems like the classic love triangle (think Elizabeth Bennet with Mr Darcy and Mr Wickham) concludes in a very unclassic way, refreshingly so.
While the storyline in The Marriage Plot is a lot more conventional than either Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides, what brings this novel to life is Eugenides brilliant writing style, at once clear, witty and insightful. And the three characters – which some find slow to warm to, I did almost immediately – each have a unique and telling perspective on the world. I was particularly drawn to Mitchell’s journey of religious discovery through Europe and India. His background most closely resembles my own which probably accounts for this connection. I adore Eugenides ability to take on each perspective, he writes each character with equal strength and resolve. I usually find in these multi-character novels, that at least one is weaker (in terms of the writing) than the others, often this is the female character for a male writer. Not so in this case. I also strongly related to the “what the heck am I going to do now that I’ve finished uni” theme – a recurring theme in my own life (my usual solution is to go back to uni again…. did I mention I’m just about to start a masters course?)
I get why other Eugenides fans have been somewhat disappointed in his latest work of fiction, it’s not on the same level as Middlesex, but that’s because the bar was set impossibly high with that one. The Marriage Plot is still an interesting read, it holds its own in the world of great fiction and it has Eugenides classic style, which if nothing else makes worth picking up. Having said that if you’ve only got time in your life for one Eugenides book go for Middlesex.