The Marriage Plot
By Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux October 2011
Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell are graduating from Brown University. Leonard loves Madeleine. So does Mitchell. Madeleine loves Leonard…she thinks. After graduation, Madeleine and Leonard move to Cape Cod, where Leonard works in a research facility and Madeleine tries to get published. Mitchell sets off to travel abroad, looking to confirm the beliefs he discovered as a religious studies major. This novel follows the three as they graduate from college and attempt to figure out adulthood.
This book was excellent. It lives up to all of the hype. I was somewhat wary as I started this book. I read The Virgin Suicides a few years ago and thought it was fine, but didn’t love it the way some other people did. This book though – this felt like the book of 20 somethings everywhere. Lines like “She had just started living like a grown-up and she’d never felt more vulnerable, frightened, or confused in her life” give word to the post-college experience in a very specific, beautiful way.
I really related to Madeleine as she decides what to do after college and learns that living with someone is very different from dating them. I also enjoyed Mitchell’s journey to find purpose and exactly what he believes. His journey is both divine and very human. While volunteering at Mother Theresa’s hospital, he frequently gets drunk and finds himself falling short of his own expectations.
On the other hand, I had some trouble relating to Leonard. Even in the sections told from his point of view, he is not a particularly likeable fellow. Perhaps this is a success on the part of the author, though, because Leonard suffers from manic depression. Even Leonard doesn’t like himself sometimes. For parts of the book, I found myself wishing that Madeleine would just leave him but, as Eugenides and generations of authors before us remind us, love is rarely simple.
The English major in me geeked out often while reading this book. Reading things like this made me smile knowingly. “Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights. After getting out of Semiotics 211, Madeleine fled to the Rockefeller Library, down to B Level, where the stacks exuded a vivifying smell of mold, and grabbed something – anything, The House of Mirth, Daniel Deronda – to restore herself to sanity. How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.”
One of my favorite things about The Marriage Plot was remembering when it was set. When one of the characters would casually refer to the year (they graduate in 1982), it always took me aback for a moment. Although this book is set a few years before I was born, it feels as if it could be about people who graduated in my class at college. Eugenides has managed to create a really timeless feel in the novel.
At its heart, this is a great story about figuring out your life in your twenties – who you date, where you live, what you believe. With a more discerning eye, this is an examination of how we dealt with love and marriage in the past and in the present. Madeleine ‘s thesis on the themes of marriage and love in the works of Jane Austen and her contemporaries in no way prepares her for real life romance, love, and marriage. Her journey, and those of Mitchell and Leonard, will resonate with you for a long time.