Eugenides’ readers have come to expect certain things. First, evidence of his preoccupation with the lives of young people. In this novel he may have shifted his focus from the troubled teenagers of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex to university age adults, but he has really only added a few years. Nobody could blame him for this; young people have such vivid experiences! Second, his intricate workmanship. Each novel seems familiar and authentic because the characters are imagined into their existence completely whole. They speak with voices that ring out in the mind. Third, there is his distinctive generosity towards those characters. He likes people, and we can tell. Yes, these individuals are flawed, and convincingly so, but he shows us how and why we should forgive them. Finally, his latest novel is as unpredictable as the first two. Every time we feel that we know where we are headed, we are proven wrong. Reading a Eugenides novel is like walking down your very own stairs with a large box in your arms. You’re sure you know how many steps there are, and then you reach confidently for the ground only to plunge through the air, in search of the step you didn’t anticipate.
Taking university life in the 1980s as his starting point, and that of English student Madeleine Hanna in particular, Eugenides indulges book lovers from the first page. Madeleine, resistant to the literary theories of the time, persists in her study of Victorian novels, generally flouting such things as deconstruction and the demise of the author. As soon as we are introduced to rivals Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus, the question seems to be: which one of them will marry Madeleine? Mitchell, the intelligent and serious religious studies student favoured by Madeleine’s parents, or Leonard, a brilliant and popular scientist, who is burdened with worries he can’t share?
With graduation behind them, this trio is forced to confront a recession and the lack of structure imposed by life without regular classes. ‘While he wrote, he felt, for the first time, as though he weren’t in school anymore. He wasn’t answering questions to get a grade on a test. He was trying to diagnose the predicament he felt himself to be in. And not just his predicament, either, but that of everyone he knew.’ The novel circles around to give us glimpses from their three different perspectives. In doing so, it makes demands of each of them, setting traps to test their strength. What must a person be prepared to sacrifice for a relationship? Can we ever live up to our ideals, whether religious or romantic? What may we legitimately expect from a person we love? While the scholars are busy ‘revising’ the novels of the 19th century, Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell unknowingly begin to act out their own version of the marriage plot.
The Marriage Plot is a sophisticated exploration of the stories we tell ourselves (such as ‘I’m destined to marry Madeleine’; or ‘I’m in love, he loves me, everything will turn out fine’; or ‘This is all my parents’ fault’) and directly acknowledges our complicated relationship with the books we read. Books are comforting, inspiring and informative. But they can be misleading and are necessarily incomplete, especially when it comes to love. In case you are at all inclined to dismiss this particular book with suspicions about it being ‘too highbrow’, consider that while there are certainly plenty of references to Barthes and Derrida, the children’s book Madeline also features. Just wait and see! You will not be disappointed.