The Marriage Plot

Oh, okay, so that’s why Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulitzer. Because he’s a great writer. That’s how it works. I understand now. I think I decided to read The Marriage Plot because I remembered hearing somewhere that it had to do with Detroit, or that it took place in Detroit, or whatever. This was not the case at all. One of the characters in the book is from Detroit, and mentions it a couple times, but that’s it. None of it takes place there. The Mitten State is not a major setting in this book. If that’s a deterrent for you, stop reading now.

Of course, as much as I love Michigan, I am not that shallow. I kept reading, and I’m incredibly glad I did. (Also, Eugenides is from Detroit, so points in his favor. He can point to his hand to say where he’s from.) This is one of the best works of fiction I’ve read in a long time, probably because it didn’t seem so fictional to me. It’s a nice feeling when you’re able to identify with a character in a book, and an even better one when multiple on-paper people jump off the page. I felt a literary kinship with Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard alike. Though my Cal college experience wasn’t as Ivy-League and bookish as theirs was at Brown, it did leave me wondering what I’d do with my degree after I earned it, and it was comforting to see that uncertainty captured so accurately. Throughout the book, Eugenides shows in great detail how the characters’ majors (English literature, biology, religious studies) affect their personal lives, and how their courses of study change the courses of their lives. I hate that I just wrote that sentence, but it’s true here. They got something profound out of their education, even if it wasn’t a specific career path.

The story here is timeless, even if it takes place in 1982 and many of the minor characters’ names are completely ridiculous. (Phyllida? Alwyn? I’m offended.) The three twentysomethings are embroiled in a sad little love triangle, with Mitchell pining after Madeleine and Madeleine being in a tumultuous relationship with Leonard. But the crazy thing about Eugenides’ writing is that, even with all of the likable qualities that each of these characters possess, and with all of the similarities the reader might see in himself, it’s still really difficult to root for any of them to get together because they’re all so selfish and annoying when it comes to relationships. Through their idiocy, Eugenides explores the institution of marriage and the foreign prospect of settling down. It’s a great, complex twist, because it deviates from the gushy, cheesy standard that you’d expect out of a love triangle, and because it places more emphasis on the unique, non-romantic details that Eugenides so painstakingly researched in order to make his characters believable as people and as experts in their fields of study. They may all be smart young things, but they’re also really stupid. Madeleine is a tease, naive despite her intelligence, and closed off to non-Nantuckety upbringings. Mitchell is a wallower, longing to experience the full breadth of his feelings and experiences. Leonard is just plain manic depressive crazy. They all lead very self-indulgent, dramatic lives, which makes sense because they’re in college and everything is very, very important when you’re in college.

Without giving too much away, Madeleine explores romantic relationships through the eyes of many Victorian authors and theorists, Leonard conducts a science experiment on his own deteriorating brain while doing legitimate research for a fellowship, and Mitchell does the whole backpacking-through-Europe-existential-post-grad crisis thing. All three of them start the book with staunch, somewhat blind values, and wind up developing complex, fluid, Emersonian notions about themselves and love and life, and not in a way that ties up nicely in a little box with a bow. The book doesn’t end so much as it just… stops. Not Sopranos style, but you’ll see what I mean. It’s still satisfying, I think.

Eugenides’ writing style is effortless. He knows how to put a sentence together without showing off, but he still has fun with images and sarcasm, and he knows precisely when to get deep. Cases in point:

p. 47 // “How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative!”

p. 149 // “She was a large, disordered woman, like a child’s drawing that didn’t stay within the lines.”

p. 221 // “Every letter was a love letter.”

He also knows how to inhabit each character’s personality and apply it to the pacing of the novel. Though the whole thing was exemplary of Eugenides’ declarative style, there was a slight up-tick in Leonard’s passages and a lot more dialogue in Mitchell’s. The penultimate chapter, “And Sometimes They Were Very Sad,” brings the two styles together subtly and beautifully.

Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, here I come. In a few years, after I’ve read all the other books on my shelf.

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One comment

  1. readlearnwrite · January 22, 2012

    I enjoyed this one, too!

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