The Marriage Plot, by Jeffery Eugenides
“Heartbreak is funny to everyone but the heartbroken.” That ironic reflection comes early on the Jeffrey Eugenides’ lively 2011 novel. The observation is made by Madeleine Hanna, one of three central characters, all 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 author too of a debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, which was made into an eerie, ironic Seventies set piece film by Sofia Coppola.
The titular term refers to the novelistic tradition in which a story ends matrimonially, the happy plot reversal that follows lengthy obstacles. 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 occupy polar 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 also 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.