Following three intellectual students from their years at Brown University through their first year after graduation, Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest novel, “The Marriage Plot” presents a modern response to the Victorian tale of love.
The audience is introduced to the novel’s heroine, Madeleine Hanna, hung over and ashamed after a final night of partying, before her class of ‘82 graduation. Despite the fact she’s just finished writing an essay on “The Marriage Plot” of novelists such as Austen and Wharton, Madeleine uses no wisdom in her own love life.
From there, the two boys vying for her love are introduced. First, there’s Mitchell, the good guy who’s been crushing on Mad since they met at a toga party freshman year. He’s been obsessing more and more over religious traditions and the idea that Madeleine belongs with him.
Then there’s Leonard Bankhead, the mysterious, wise and easy-on-the-eyes guy in semiotics class with Madeleine and Mitchell. Soon enough, Mad has fallen in love with him, setting aside her preferences for the neat and tidy for nights at his bachelor pad.
Madeleine thinks she’s in love with Leonard, even when his personal problems start messing with their relationship. She sticks with him after graduating college, and past the point most girls would call it quits, ignoring advice from her mother, her sister, her roommates and Mitchell.
Set in the 1980’s, as the United States is just awakening to ideas of feminism, advances in pharmaceutics and punk-rock music, it’s possible Madeleine may be a few decades too late for the clean-cut, fairy-tale endings she read about in college.
Mixing philosophy, psychology, literary references and religious theories into the narrative, “The Marriage Plot” delivers not only plot, but commentary on the uses of education as well. The characters struggle to apply what they’ve learned at college to their post-graduate lives—from Madeleine’s rejection into Yale, to Mitchell’s tests of moral integrity—their educations seem to have failed to prepare them for the real world.
Here’s the first place where “The Marriage Plot” loses impact: While most find some menial job to scrape by on after college, only Leonard has any sort of role resembling employment. Mitchell opts to spend a year roaming Europe and India, while Madeleine lives off the wealth of her parents.
Besides their apparent richness, there’s little to like about any of the characters. Readers will struggle to find a character to connect to, or even a hero to root for.
Even for a book about a literature major, “The Marriage Plot” is extremely heavy-handed with its references to famous authors. If references to Eliot, Barthes, or even Ballard or obscure Salinger novels seem intimidating, be warned.
Despite its lack of a hero, “The Marriage Plot” is readable to the end, if only to find out who will be sleeping with whom at the novel’s conclusion.
Rating: 3 out of 5