It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead – charismatic loner and college Darwinist – suddenly turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus – who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange – resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.
Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they have learned. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.
Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.
Firstly, I’ve never read any novels by Jeffrey Eugenides before, though I’ve wanted to for a long time. I found The Marriage Plot in hardback in a charity shop a while ago so thought I’d start with this one as opposed to Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides.
Being an avid reader, I liked the reference to important literary works, and the premise of the marriage plot itself was interesting as I’d studied a lot of Austen and similar authors during my English Literature degree at university. However sometimes the way they were included seemed to me a little forced.
There were times during this story that I felt incredibly sad and emotional, namely the scenes set in the Indian hospice that Mitchell is helping at, and then other times where Eugenides writing seemed very humorous and witty, so although there weren’t any points where I was completely absorbed in the characters’ worlds, I did enjoy reading it.
The characters are really well developed; each has their own problems and issues and all are far from perfect. Madeleine comes across as quite irritating and a spoilt brat at times, but she changes a considerable amount as the years go by. My favourite character is probably Leonard, who’s struggling with his own mental health issues- many of which I feel should be discussed more today- and it offered an interesting insight into someone trying to deal with this, and how hard it must be not just for them but for friends and family too.
The Marriage Plot seemed quite long when reading it and it took me over a week and a half to finish, which is unusual (though I have been pretty busy recently). I think it’s because at times the story slows considerably and covers the characters at college and then the year after they graduate. Though there is some beautiful writing by Eugenides, it sometimes struggled to keep my attention, making me have to re-read some paragraphs that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to!
Overall, though this is a nicely written story that’s interesting enough, I wasn’t blown away or even particularly impressed by The Marriage Plot. I’ve been told by various people that Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides are both brilliant though, so I will be giving those a chance too- maybe I should have started with one of those!
Have you read The Marriage Plot? What did you think?