“To start with, look at all the books.” So begins Jeffrey Eugenides’s THE MARRIAGE PLOT. You will immediately know if this book is for you based on your reaction to the first paragraph, in which Eugenides introduces us to main character Madeleine Hanna by listing the books residing on her shelf—from the “complete Modern Library set of Henry James,” to the New Directions paperbacks of poetry, to the “Colette novels she read on the sly.”
Our first impression of Madeleine is based entirely on her reading log. How could a book lover not find this introduction delicious and intriguing? At its core, THE MARRIAGE PLOT is essentially literary criticism in the form of a novel—but rendered immensely readable, with vivid characters and a good dose of humor to boot.
Maybe my particular affection for THE MARRIAGE PLOT is partially due to the fact that I read it at the perfect time. I was a senior in college, treading the same dubious ground as Madeleine. The book opens on her graduation day (gray, cold, generally nonfortuitous) and flashes between her now bygone college years and the murky future ahead.
THE MARRIAGE PLOT may take place in the 80’s, but it still feels a lot like the present to me: students wanting to change the world and create meaningful lives are graduating into a poor economy that limits their ability to actually achieve their goals. And feminism, along with the boundaries and implications of love and sex, is being redefined. Pretty spot-on to my own experience, sans the shoulder pads.
The woke Brown students in this novel turn up their noses at the study of plain old English in favor of semiotics—the study of signs and symbols—and clutch Derrida’s OF GRAMMATOLOGY to their sides as their formidable Bible. Madeleine, however, clings to the cozy comforts of her Jane Austen and George Eliot—the subjects of her senior thesis and purveyors of the marriage plot in literature. The marriage plot, by the way, is a storyline that revolves around the courtship of a man and woman, and whatever complications they must endure on the road to marriage.
While one of Madeleine’s professors asserts that the marriage plot is dead, Madeleine finds herself consumed with her own marriage plot, with thoughts of two particular men in her life: Leonard Bankhead, at once magnetically alluring and capriciously unstable (speculated to be based on David Foster Wallace—bandanna and all) and Mitchell Grammaticus, the steadfast “nice guy.”
But all of the characters in THE MARRIAGE PLOT seek something deeper and more complicated than fleeting romance. Mitchell, a religious studies major, chooses a pilgrimage across India and Europe over divinity school in his search for spiritual enlightenment. Leonard, an aspiring scientist, struggles with managing his chronic and severe depression. And Madeleine, after much deliberation, finds the perfect career for her true passions as a Victorian literature scholar and attends an academic conference where, for once, no one asks if she has a boyfriend or not.
By its end, THE MARRIAGE PLOT begs the question: has the marriage plot actually died? Or has it just evolved as we redefined love and marriage? As Madeleine and her two potential suitors discover, we will always want more—and that insatiable wanting is what great books are founded on.