Jeffrey Eugenides is the anti-Joyce Carol Oates. Despite publishing only once every nine years, he has built up a passionate and loyal following on the strength of two works: “The Virgin Suicides” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex.”
His third novel, The Marriage Plot, features his most autobiographical character to date. Eugenides has said in interviews that he bequeathed to Mitchell Grammaticus certain of his own college-age baggage, such as a penchant for vintage suits instead of jeans and a stint volunteering at Mother Teresa's home for the dying in Calcutta.
Mitchell is a “smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy.” In the other corner, we have Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant, bipolar scientist who boasts both an unhappy upbringing and biceps. Guess who wins the favors of our heroine?
“The Marriage Plot” opens on graduation day at Brown University in Rhode Island in 1982, where Madeleine Hanna is nursing a nasty hangover. (This never happened to Elizabeth Bennett.) Madeleine was popular in high school, is good at tennis, and strings Mitchell along in a ruthlessly capricious way. You'd hate her, except that she had “become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.”
Madeleine has a huge affection for 19th-century romances, which are considered hopelessly out of date by her brainy semiotics class. In a metafictional conceit, Eugenides uses his old-fashioned novel to champion the pleasures of … the old-fashioned novel. “Madeleine was perfectly happy with the idea of genius. She wanted a book to take her places she couldn't get to herself. She thought a writer should work harder writing a book than she did reading it. When it came to letters and literature, Madeleine championed a virtue that had fallen out of esteem: namely clarity.”
Madeleine's thesis is on “The Marriage Plot,” which her professor considered the height of the novel form. “In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?”
This, of course, is the challenge Eugenides has set: Can he make the marriage plot matter to a 21st-century audience? (The increased sales of romance novels would indicate yes.)
The novel's opening section is also its best, tracing Madeleine's and her two suitors' careers at Brown over the course of graduation day. Madeleine chose an epigraph for her thesis from Anthony Trollope's “Barchester Towers”: “The way of true love never works out, except at the end of an English novel.” Alas for Madeleine, her novel was made in the U.S.A.
As the three set off on their lives, the country is mired in a recession and there are no jobs. (Sound familiar?) Mitchell, having taken a look at the unemployment rate, is headed to Europe and then India, which also has the benefit of putting an ocean between him and Madeleine. (Dude, there's Tibet, Thailand, Australia – keep going.) Madeleine, unsure how to turn a love for Austen and Eliot into a career, is following Leonard to Cape Cod, where he's scored a high-profile internship. This would be excellent news, except that Leonard's manic depression is spiraling out of control, threatening his professional and personal future.
Eugenides writes with great skill about trying to live with someone grappling with mental illness, as it becomes clear that Madeleine hasn't landed herself in an Austen comedy. Her determination to have faith in Leonard, no matter what, is more reminiscent of Dorothea Brooke in “Middlemarch.”
“The Marriage Plot” isn't as ambitious a work as “Middlesex,” and the rest of the novel doesn't live up to the opening section. But, speaking as a lover of 19th-century novels, it's impossible not to be charmed by Eugenides's defense.