“The Marriage Plot”
by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
New York, 2011
It’s difficult not to appreciate a novel that’s about people who love to read. And Madeleine, our heroine, certainly loves to do that.
“Madeleine’s final paper for the seminar was titled, ‘The Interrogative Mood: Marriage Proposals and the (Strictly Limited) Sphere of the Feminine,” for which the reader may be led to believe is the primary topic of The Marriage Plot, the novel, but this farce is quickly dropped when the relationships of the characters represented are revealed (22). Madeleine may be studying novels concerning marriage—women set up to marry one man but find another suitor who has sauntered onto the stage, thus giving the story plot and tension as there is a definite either/or scenario with at some point serious doubt as to who will be chosen in the outcome—but Eugenides also plops her into one.
The Marriage Plot splits narration between Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard; Mitchell is the pining underdog vying for Madeleine’s attention while Madeleine prefers the taller but manic depressive Leonard who half the time meanders about in a bewildered and stupefied state depending on whether or not he’s taken the right amount of medication. In fact, Madeleine likens him to a giant puppy and she’s perhaps not off in her estimation.
Eugenides has his moments. From time to time, he is delectable at getting a rise out of the reader, and this is the thrill that keeps us all reading—this is the lingua franca that all readers understand—but on the whole I am a little bit concerned that this novel’s self-awareness was too heavy handed, and therefore, kind of contrived.
There’s a highbrow way to go about things, and a lowbrow way to go about things. And there’s a way to toe the line. But Eugenides doesn’t toe anything; he’s irrevocably highbrow with references to the classics and to philosophy and to religion, but he’s written an entire novel that ends with a punchline on the very last page. (Don’t look! It’s not the kind of one-liner you’d get without reading the setup.) And in a way, punched is really how I feel.
I think that Eugenides is an important voice in the current literary landscape, but I’m not so sure I’d recommend this novel, which basks in the penumbra of roman à clef. Time is better suited elsewhere.