"There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel."
Bibliophiles have this thing, not dissimilar to audiophiles or cinephiles, in which we tend to zoom in on a person's bookcase in order to gauge the compatibility of our aesthetic sensibilities. Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, The Marriage Plot, in fact opens with a close perusal of the heroine's shelves. There we find Edith Wharton, Henry James, Dickens, Trollope, Austen, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, a collection described as "Incurably Romantic." The heroine, Madeleine Hanna, and I would not be the most compatible bibliophiles. Having studied something other than English at university, I managed to bypass most of these authors and their air of "required reading." I might have found her too academic or blinded by old-fashioned prejudice; she would read my variety of literary interests as chaotic, or a dilettante. Nevertheless, after a round of drinks we'd probably discover we are both unrepentant snobs, ruing the decline of American reading standards. I might not have gotten around to George Eliot or Henry James, but I would know I should.
Truth told, I probably would have fallen for Madeleine too if I had been a liberal arts major at Brown in the early 1980s when the story is situated. She's romantic to a fault, literate, forgiving, generous, attentive, and witty. So I was thus surprised when I checked out the reviews on goodreads to see so many one-star reviews with plenty of nasty commentary, mostly condemning the character of Madeline as a "spoiled brat," as something "pretentious" and "loathsome." Personally, I rather liked her and the book as well. It made me nostalgic for university life, for a time when I was a young man, young love, and the hyper-personal quest of selfhood.
Perhaps readers were expecting something more special after the wonderful strangeness of Eugenides' first two novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. But though The Marriage Plot invokes the specters of Roland Barthes, Jaques Derrida, and other maddening post-structuralists, as foreshadowed by Madeline's bookshelves, this is old-fashioned storytelling. It's Eugenides' homage to the Victorians, as the plot deals with love, marriage, class, and, poignantly, madness. Madeline is the pivotal point of a love triangle between two suitors, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammatical, the former a hyper-intelligent manic-depressive, the latter, a shy, introverted ascetic with a spiritual keenness to understand God.
The novel begins on the day of graduation. Madeleine is hungover, she's had some regretful relations with a classmate, her parents are in town and she has just learned that her ex-boyfriend, Leonard, has been recently institutionalized for a nervous breakdown. Relationships are rarely on equal terms-- one usually loves or needs more, and the balance of power, once Leonard's, shifts to Madeleine once they move in together when Leonard takes a fellowship in Cape Cod. Meanwhile, Mitchell has suffered an unrequited crush on Madeleine throughout university. A religious studies major from a humble Greek family in Michigan, he tries his best to put Madeleine out of his mind by traveling to Europe, and later, India, where he volunteers at Mother Teresa's hospice, desperate to make sense of a spiritual path, vainly hoping it might intersect at a romantic one. University life, European travel, and young adult anxiety are all explored in depth. However, the reader's interest in The Marriage Plot hinges best on who gets the girl.
Sounds terrifically old-fashioned storytelling, right? But in a twist of the sexist Victorian conceit, it is Madeleine who is most stable, mentally and financially, while the men flounder in poverty, odd jobs, and uncertain futures. This is 1982, post-feminism, post ERA, post Roe vs. Wade, and it is the men who stand to gain stability and respect in marriage, not Madeleine. There is a marriage in The Marriage Plot (the book's title refers to Madeleine's thesis paper), but I'm not one for spoilers. And if I were to tell you that Mitchell seems to closely resemble the author and his own experiences as a young man, I have still told you nothing.
I can be partial to old-fashioned themes, and there is nothing more classic to a novel than love and marriage. However the narrative is a bit complex, as Eugenides breaks the book into sections of close third person, where we read scenes over, but from the other major viewpoint. For me the enjoyment in the book was not so much the plot, nor its resolution (which I did enjoy), but in how spot-on (and agreeable) Eugenides details were. Perhaps Eugenides has read more post-structuralism than myself (I am not a fan) so he might be more receptive to its ideas, but not here: "Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights." The most ghastly moment in the novel involves Roland Barthes. When Madeleine declares her love for Leonard the first time his response is to point out this passage in Madeleine's well-thumbed copy of the famed post-modernist's Lover's Discourse: "The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry. Once the first avowal has been made, 'I love you' has no meaning whatever..." Madeleine responds by throwing the book at him.