The Marriage Plot
by Jeffrey Eugenides
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Knowing that Eugenides had a new book coming out made the summer more literarily exciting. I pre-ordered the book to have it as soon as it came out, but alas had no time to read it until vacation. But when vacation came, it only took me two days of spellbound attention to polish off this page-turner.
And for the literary theory, book-reading nerd that I am, this was indeed a page turner. Glissandos of action-packed semiotics theory, the swell of new responses to Roland Barthes, the dramatic adoption of theory into the sacred texts of English departments--it's all there, amidst the tale of love and mania. I could empathize with the protagonist, Madeline Hanna, a graduating senior at Brown University in 1982. She's an English major for the reason that she loves books, that she has always loved books, that she found obscure old hardcovers wherever she went on vacation and read them with relish. She finds other people's bookshelves the most interesting part of their houses.
I also became an English major for love of books--novels in particular--and still smarting is the memory of the day that my "superiors" informed me this was a naive reason to study literature and language. Madeline's slow discovery of the the first hints of this reality is also painful. She seems like me, a person who remembers places primarily based on what she was reading when she was in that place; and I'm not sure how many more of us there are, or if there will ever be people like us again, post-video games and iPhones.
Ostentatiously, The Marriage Plot asks if the title object is so much a part of the novel that its upending must bring the end of the form itself. The book says no, kind of; I'm not sure this is a necessary question, though, as Eugenides has already written two wonderful novels that eschew the marriage plot all together. Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides were both, like this novel, middle-brow easy reading for people that often enjoy high brow difficult reading. All are excellent; all worth your time. But this third novel is less political than the other two, and dare I say less original. Yet his understanding of some forms of feminine experience are far superior to most working American writers, even women writers!
There are also several men in the novel, including two in a romantic triangle with Madeline. I'm deliberately ignoring them; they are mostly interesting to me only in the fact that they demonstrate typically male approaches to the world (reading religion instead of fiction, becoming a scientist instead of a literary scholar, etc.) . They aren't bad characters. They're fine. Just not the focal point of the novel, IMHO. All the characters share the annoying defect of being highly privileged, but low enough on the totem pole that they feel like they're at a disadvantage. We're talking the poorer, less-connected people who attended BROWN UNIVERSITY after all. People whose parents' second house is tiny, and that is a source of embarrassment. At one point, a character actually says, well, it's still an Ivy-league school even if no one has ever heard of it. But seriously? We are talking about people who can walk into virtually any room in America and instantly pull rank based on their alma mater, people who regardless of the specifics of their material circumstances have climbed a hierarchy of education that allows them the assert their intellectual superiority, that makes their ideas more 'important' than those of us who graduated from lowly humdrum regional colleges (me bitter? no, not at all!) Which, of course, only obscures the even greater gulfs between the attention we give the voices of people with more formal (college) education over the voices of people without college education, or those who graduate from high school over those who do not.
Back to the book--the novel's ending, which I won't reveal here, is simultaneously predictable and disappointing. Which might actually be the point. Don't read the book for a satisfying ending, or for much political wisdom, or a new view of the world. It doesn't provide those things. But yes, read The Marriage Plot for its splendidly capable writing, for its meta-novelistic wisdom, and for its general appeal to bookworms. If you are the kind of person who likes this kind of book, you'll like it; if you're not, this will do nothing to change your mind.
Four out of five stars.