Ever since I left college in May, I have been on the hunt for good campus novels. It’s interesting, because while at college I was worried that I had lost my appetite for fiction, but the moment I left, I was desperate for a book to help transport me back. In the process, I was reminded of one of the amazing things about literature—its ability to fill gaps for people, temporarily satisfy longing or escapism. Back at home in California and longing for my idyllic Maine campus, I stumbled upon Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.
I had heard of Eugenides already because of his 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Middlesex, but I had never read any of his work. He exists in the same generation of late 20th century novelists like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, men who are now well known not just because of their novels, but for being writers, and for all being friends, something like the Lost Generation of the 1920s or the Beat Generation of the 1950s. I have always been enchanted by the idea of generations of writers, a kind of intelligentsia, and so I was excited to read Eugenides for that reason as well. The Marriage Plot, which followed Middlesex, received much less fanfare, but its plot was far more relatable to me, so it was my obvious starting point.
The novel follows three people in their early 20s—Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell, through their last year of Brown and the year afterward. Though the book takes on the narrative from all three perspectives, alternating in different chapters, the real protagonist is Madeleine, who serves as both of the men’s love interests. She is an English major who is writing her thesis about The Marriage Plot, a concept in Victorian novels. As such, Eugenides lets us into the conversations that take place in her literary theory class, which is perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the book that isn’t based around the narrative itself. Listening to characters argue about the theories of Derrida of Barthes was a delightfully thought-provoking and almost academic experience, something I missed since leaving college for the summer.
Her boyfriend, Leonard, suffers from a mental illness that slowly becomes the primary focus of the narrative. Apparently, he is based on David Foster Wallace, a writer whose story I became very interested in a few summers ago. Reading about a character based on him, written by a man who knew Foster Wallace, was illuminating, and very humanizing, given the gigantic stature Foster Wallace has in the literary canon. To his credit, Eugenides manages to write about Leonard’s illness with elegance and grace, never revealing or pitying too much, and without glossing over some of the more difficult aspects of such a disease. Leonard’s perspective is only provided once, but it is the most fascinating chapter in the book.
Mitchell, the final character, pines after Madeleine during college and in the year after. In an effort to get over her, he leaves to travel the world with his friend, but ultimately ends up volunteering for Mother Teresa in India. Mitchell is apparently based on Eugenides, who was also a Greek, a religious studies major, and also spent time volunteering in India. As Leonard and Mitchell often serve as foils for each other, one ostensibly gets a chance to see Eugenides compare himself to Foster Wallace in this way. The way Eugenides writes it, Mitchell is a very normal guy, and Leonard is more of a character, with a mythology that follows him around college, a specific way of dressing, an aura. It is not difficult to imagine that Eugenides might have felt that way about Foster Wallace, who was winning awards, being hailed a genius, and only became more discussed and mythologized himself after his 2008 suicide.
Mitchell’s internal dilemmas about religion, similar to Madeleine’s class discussions about literary theory, provide interesting concepts and ideas for readers to think about that are a bit removed from the plot. I loved that aspect of the book, as it made me think about my own beliefs in these two areas. Furthermore, we get to see him travel through multiple countries—Paris, Greece, India—and so are given something of an honest, accurate description of the excitement, but also struggle, of traveling when young and broke. It is nice to read about a European tour where someone is counting their money down to the last dollar, and is not necessarily having an amazing experience every moment of the day.
As the book progresses, Mitchell and Leonard become more and more fleshed out, dynamic characters. However, I think the flaw of the book, and the reason it did not do as well as Middlesex, is that Madeleine, who is at first a fascinating protagonist, becomes flatter, more and more defined by her relationship to Leonard than by her own interests, both academic and personal. Perhaps this is part of sharing a life with an ill person, but I was left wondering why I had even found her an interesting person in the beginning of the book.
On the whole, however, I loved The Marriage Plot. I knew I wanted it to last, so I tried to read it slowly, but on my plane ride from California to New York, I devoured its second half in a matter of hours. The narrative is quick, framed with flashbacks that keep it interesting, and the characters all bare their thoughts in a way that is relatable and illuminating to one’s own experiences. There were different points in the narrative in which I felt most like each one of the characters.
That, I think, is another power of literature—to remind readers that people have far more in common than they might know from surface level interactions. Often the way people think, the way people experience things, might be similar. I related to Mitchell’s abstractions of people that he created in his own head, Leonard’s concern about the glorification of family in popular culture and that disconnect with his own family, and with Madeleine’s fear of broken people. None of these characters are really similar to me on a surface level, but nevertheless, I would end their chapters suddenly feeling as if they and I might understand each other quite well.
Especially for young people, in college or just out of it, The Marriage Plot is an interesting meditation on what it means to become an adult, to craft a life out of a collection of amorphous experience. Its plot is not incredibly new or cutting-edge, but there is something nice about reading a familiar story—two guys wanting the same girl—when it is written by a writer as talented and thoughtful as Eugenides.
The Marriage Plot
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition
Publication Date: September 2012
Contributor: Sarisha Kurup attends Bowdoin College in Maine.