When I read the blurb of The Marriage Plot in The Works, I knew I just couldn’t resist it, despite never having read Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides. A book based around the dissection of my favourite author’s works? Yes please.
Plot summary: Brown University, 1982. Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English student and incurable romantic, is writing her thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot – authors of the great marriage plots. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different men, intervenes.
Leonard Bankhead, brilliant scientist and charismatic loner, attracts Madeleine with an intensity that she seems powerless to resist. Meanwhile her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus, a theology student searching for some kind of truth in life, is certain of at least one thing – that he and Madeleine are destined to be together.
But as all three leave college, they will have to figure out how they want their own marriage plot to end.
While this is very much a book about books, Madeleine’s thesis about Austen and Eliot doesn’t actually feature much. There isn’t really an over-arching plot at all – instead it’s about people, finding religion, literature, bad decisions, mental illness and a whole host of other issues. Not a whole lot actually happens as such, but it’s worth reading just for the lovely prose and detailed conversations about books.
Not that I’ve read any of them. It’s mostly about incredibly obscure philosophical ‘greats,’ which can make it a little difficult to follow at first. This didn’t affect my enjoyment though – I’m happy to sit back and ‘listen’ to people who love literature as much as I do, even if it’s about unfamiliar works.
She’d become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read. The university’s “British and American Literature Course Catalog” was, for Madeleine, what its Bergdorf equivalent was for her roommates. A course listing like “English 274: Lyly’s Euphes” excited Madeleine the way a pair of Fiorucci cowboy boots did Abby.
… the magesterial presence of all those potentially readable words stopped her in her tracks. She could scan book spines for as long as an hour. Her cataloging of the family’s holdings rivaled the Dewey decimal system in its comprehensiveness.
Sound familiar to anybody? The Marriage Plot could only be written by somebody with an intense love of books. There’s a lot to relate to in here.
Books aside, the remainder of the plot focuses on relationships. Madeleine, for reasons completely absurd to me, is drawn to Leonard… who doesn’t really care about anything, too busy with his manic depression. He’s a very unlikeable character who causes no end of problems, but I assume that’s kind of the point. Mitchell, Madeleine’s friend, is desperately in love with her and so runs off travelling to avoid his problems. If I were her I’d stick with my books, I think.
The story loosely relates to the title, but only vaguely. Mitchell wants to marry Madeliene, who wants to marry Leonard, who isn’t marriage material. Straight out of an Austen book, only with more sex. Unless you’re Longbourn, anyway. It’s kind of… real, though. The characters are all flawed and not exactly likeable, but somehow that adds to the appeal. It seems like this actually could happen, and to real people.
Like I said though, it almost doesn’t matter. The writing is too great. It has a slightly formal style and passes on a lot of academic knowledge, so it does require your full attention but is worth every minute. It feels natural, somehow.
He’d turned eighteen in August and the Disease, as though waiting for him to reach legal drinking age, began to flood him with intoxicants. Two things mania did were to keep you up all night and to enable nonstop sex: pretty much the definition of college. Leonard studied at the Rockefeller Library every night until midnight, like a yeshiva student davening over the Torah. At the stroke of twelve he headed back to West Quad, where there was always a party going on, usually in his room.
The ending isn’t very good at all though, which is probably the only fault of The Marriage Plot. It tries to be clever and tie in with the title but it’s overly twee and incredibly unsatisfying. It’s too flat. It actually took the rating down a whole star – what can I say, endings are important.
To conclude, Jeffrey Eugenides is a hugely talented author. The prose flows beautifully and he manages to get inside the head of a bookish 20-something woman perfectly – and I’m a damn expert. Read this for the experience, but don’t expect to be blown away by the story.