1 December, 2022

LitStack Rec – The Marriage Plot & Leviathan Wakes

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffery Eugenides

“Heartbreak is funny to everyone but the heartbroken.” That ironic reflection comes early the Jeffrey Eugenides’ lively 2011 novel. The observation is made by Madeleine Hanna, one of three central characters, all of whom are students at Brown University. We meet them on the morning of graduation in 1982, liberal arts undergrads about to enter the post-grad world.

Eugenides, himself a graduate of Brown, won the Pulitzer Prize for his second novel, Middlesex, and is also the author of a debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, which was made into an eerie film, an ironic seventies set piece by Sofia Coppola.

The titular term refers to the novelistic tradition in which a story ends in matrimony, a happy plot reversal after lengthy obstacles of (typically) misunderstanding, separation, and interlopers. It’s a trope that’s ingrained in western literature—think Austen, Eliot, the Bronte sisters—and a plot device that, in the 20th century, migrated to film, defined by those proverbial kisses at the close of a film.

At the center of The Marriage Plot is the romantic triad of Madeleine, Mitchell Grammaticus, the wayward philosophy major, and Leonard Bankhead, brilliant but troubled biology brainiac. The two suitors are opposites of temperament and style. And Madeleine, with her love for Victoriana and nineteenth century novels, is a foil to them both. All three are romantics, but how and why they seek the intensity of romance makes for the novel’s addictive character driven story.

“In Madeleine’s face was a stupidity Mitchell had never seen before. It was the stupidity of all normal people. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and the beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.”

Eugenides’ prose dances along doing amazing things that seem contrary in the same line of prose: it provides entertaining, intelligent reading while revealing the deeper truths of its characters. Really, this book has it all. Plot, character, insight, books, love, loss, eighties music. And woven into it all is the motif of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, that classic of eighties academia (I dug out my copy and took a sentimental journey through the highlighted sections). There is a richness to The Marriage Plot, not only in its meta-layering of books about books, and love about love, but of the gentle conceit that love, though well portrayed in books, is difficult to capture with any clarity in real life.

—Lauren Alwan



  • Lauren Alwan

    Lauren Alwan’s fiction has appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories, the Southern Review, the Alaska Quarterly Review, StoryQuarterly, in the Bellevue Literary Review. She is the recipient of a First Pages Prize, the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, and.a citation of Notable in Best American Essays. Her essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Catapult, World Literature Today, The Rumpus, The Millions, Writer's Digest, and others. She is a prose editor at the museum of americana, an online literary review. Follow her on Twitter at @lauren_alwan and learn more at www.laurenalwan.com