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The Marriage Plot A Peculiar One

  • Susan Ellingburg Contributing Writer
  • 2011 10 Nov
<i>The Marriage Plot</i> A Peculiar One

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides

Title: The Marriage Plot

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux

First, a disclaimer:  I'm not sure I'm qualified to read this novel, let alone review it, but there wasn't enough time for me to run out and earn a doctorate in English literature and/or comparative religion before my deadline, so I'll do my pedestrian best.

Why the need for specialized education? The first part of the book deals with literary criticism, something called semiotics, and authors of varying obscurity. The latter part is consumed with the search for spiritual significance, while the middle flirts with high-level scientific research and family dynamics. There's a novel in there somewhere, too . . . .

Let me pause here and say that there are many, many, many glowing reviews of The Marriage Plot from highly regarded sources. Author Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulitzer Prize for his last novel (Middlesex), so that's got to be worth something, right? Indeed, The Marriage Plot is an impressive work. Not particularly enjoyable (in my view), but impressive. "Every genius needs an explainer," says one character. If the author is a genius—and he may well be—that would explain a lot.

Oh, the plot? Here's what I was able to piece together: Madeleine, a pretty, fairly normal (and slightly ashamed of it) girl goes to college in the early nineteen-eighties. There she meets Leonard, a brilliant-but-eccentric scientific type with scary mood swings, and Mitchell, an equally brilliant-but-decidedly-odd guy. It's a classic love triangle. Unfortunately, none of the three seems capable of true love—or any kind of healthy relationship, for that matter.

I'll tell you what they are capable of, though: sex. Rather a lot of sex. This should spice up the story, but Eugenides manages to describe encounters in a way that manages to be simultaneously fairly graphic and fairly dull. No one seems to enjoy themselves, even in the height of so-called passion. It's a bit sad, like the characters themselves.

Post-graduation, Madeleine and Leonard move to Cape Cod where he has a post as a research assistant. Madeleine's career plans aren't going so well, so she tries to figure out how to turn her love of literature into a viable career. As the days go by she becomes more codependent and Leonard grows more unstable.

Meanwhile, theology major Mitchell heads off on a world tour. "Everyone [Mitchell] knew was convinced that religion was a sham and God a fiction. But his friends' replacements for religion didn't look too impressive. No one had an answer for the riddle of existence." That's not for lack of trying on Mitchell's part—he gives almost everything a shot, including a gushing invitation to meet Jesus and a stint working with Mother Teresa. (Neither goes particularly well.) It's an interesting study of philosophies, but doesn't exactly make for light reading.

In fact, there's nothing light about this book. The cover copy gushes that The Marriage Plot is "a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like an intimate journal of our own lives." Maybe . . . if your journal is that of an unhappy, possibly unbalanced, amoral, lost kind of person. Personally, I'd rather read one of the Victorian novels Madeleine prefers—the kind where characters are at least occasionally allowed a happy ending.  

*This review first published 11/10/2011