The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Madeleine, an intelligent if not particularly insightful young woman, is unaware of her own beauty and effortless class privilege, and, therefore, her power over men. Mitchell is in love with her, and though he is quite knowledgeable in matters both academic and spiritual, he is unable to see her as anything but an object he must possess. Leonard is thoughtful beyond his years in matters of the heart and head, but because he is psychologically unstable, he uses his intelligence to manipulate Madeleine, who loves him and whom he loves. The three are seniors at Brown University at the beginning of Jeffrey Eugenides’ wonderful new novel, which addresses timeless themes of love versus duty, devotion versus obsession, and self-realization versus self-actualization while exploring What the Contemporary Novel Is For and whether traditional story-telling still has purpose and relevance in the post-postmodern era. (Eugenides’ answer, from the beginning, is an unqualified “yes.”)

Eugenides set his previous novels, The Virgin Suicides and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, in the not-too-distant past. His ability to weave historical detail into literary fiction extends far beyond world events into the cultural zeitgeist, with a keen awareness of how things have changed and a buoyant sense of regret about his own 20/20 hindsight. The Marriage Plot takes place in the early 1980s, a generation before cellphones, the internet, “helicopter parents,” entrenched feminism, and Prozac. Eugenides doesn’t go out of his way to point this out, but the absence of modern conveniences is obvious, as when Mitchell goes to India after college and is able to completely cut off communication with family and friends (they send him letters addressed to the American Express office in Calcutta). Our knowledge about and understanding of mental illness has changed dramatically over the years. Today, at small private colleges across the country, it is a given that a significant percentage of the freshman class comes to school with a diagnosed psychological condition. In 1982, lithium was the drug of choice for manic-depressives, and though young and often unable to handle the reality of mental illness, college students at large were not yet jaded on the topic, conversant in the vocabulary, or likely to recognize the warning signs of a true breakdown before the situation became critical. In Leonard, Eugenides plays a meta-trick on the reader. Those in the know will recognize, at least by physical description, the late author David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008. This knowledge isn't critical; however, it creates an emotional connection between the reader and Leonard that Eugenides had to have predicted or overtly desired when he made this choice. Wallace was known for experimentation in his writing, while attempting to give voice and meaning to the human experience—ideas that relate directly to the structure of The Marriage Plot.

Leonard and Madeleine meet in a literary semiotics course; the reading list includes Derrida, Barthes, and Eco. English major Madeleine’s true literary loves include the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen, but suddenly everyone she knows is reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology and name-dropping Foucault, Lyotard, and Baudrillard. “Almost overnight it became laughable to read writers like Cheever or Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading about the Marquis de Sade. Going to college in the money-making eighties lacked a certain radicalism. Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution.” In class, during a discussion of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams and whether or not suicide is a literary trope that must be shattered, Leonard saves Madeleine from having to offer an opinion when he interjects that if he were going to write about his mother’s suicide, he doesn’t think he’d be concerned about being experimental. Another classmate retorts that it doesn’t matter whether Handke felt grief in some traditional sense in the real world, because “Books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books. How do you write about something, even something real and painful—like suicide—when all of the writing that's been done on the subject has robbed you of any originality of expression?” The same question is posed by the book’s title—the academic idea that the novel traditionally arced around the societal necessity of marriage, that “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?”

Eugenides asks us to decide whether story still matters, whether redemption is all-important to character arc, and what the role of the beloved is when the beloved is a real person, flawed, with concrete needs and desires. Growth is hard-won by the members of this love triangle, who, because they are still so young, are only capable of change in spite of themselves.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 406 pages

This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 10/07/2011