The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Expectation is such a tricky thing. I loved Middlesex. I couldn’t wait to read The Marriage Plot because I loved Middlesex. But because I was expecting Eugenides’ latest book to make me feel the way I felt about his previous, I didn’t love it.

Perhaps I was still coming down from my Munro high and wasn’t ready to land in Eugenides’ more straightforward, less lyrical prose. The premise might also have had something to do with it; stories that center around WASP-y privilege are mildly depressing to me in even the best cases, and I couldn’t garner much enthusiasm for Madeleine (though I could relate to her feelings of intimidation when facing her first encounter with Derrida and his admiring devotees). Nonetheless, I did enjoy the book quite a bit, and had I not set the bar quite so high, I might have had an unequivocally positive response to it.

The story follows three characters, all of them undergraduate students at Brown: Madeleine Hanna, who would prefer life to look a whole lot more like a nineteenth century novel than it usually does; Leonard Bankhead, who sticks in my mind as a sort of lumbering oaf because of his name, size, and mannerisms, though he is fiercely intelligent and emotionally complex; and Mitchell Grammaticus, a skinny, smart, monastic wanderer. A more-or-less standard love triangle ties the three together: Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard, Leonard’s energy is completely swallowed up by efforts to manage his manic depression.

Unlike the vast scope of Middlesex, in The Marriage Plot Eugenides keeps the focus tightly on these three figures. He explores the ways that they each respond to the impending turning point of college graduation–the ways in which they begin to see themselves as adults. Madeleine, naive in her longing to be loved, curling up daily and nightly with Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse to amplify first her love, then her heartsickness, plunges herself headlong into a marriage with issues far more adult than she is ready to handle. I found her to be a pretty flat character and was mildly annoyed by her at a few points in the novel.

Mitchell and Leonard I found more interesting and endearing characters. Mitchell embarks on a clichéd voyage to Europe and India, but his moments of self-discovery are genuine and told with affection. (Having become greatly interested in Christian mysticism, for instance, the focal point of Mitchell’s trip is a period of service in Mother Teresa’s Home for Dying Destitutes. Once there, however, Mitchell finds himself shirking duties and feeling both admiration for and aversion to the other volunteers. He eventually bolts from the place, in a sequence that appeared in the New Yorker as “Asleep in the Lord” (paywall, sorry). Mitchell’s baffling and longstanding obsession with Madeleine betrays his youth, but it’s clear that he’s got (or is developing) a pretty good sense of who he is.

Finally, Leonard. Leonard lacks the luxury of “discovering himself” that both Madeleine and Mitchell can indulge in. Besieged by manic depression, Leonard’s personality, behavior, and intelligence are alternately propelled to extremes, crushed by depression, and nullified by medications. He is acutely aware of his condition, but can only sometimes surmount its effects. A moment of interaction between Leonard and Mitchell completely alters the dynamic of the triangle, and leads me to believe that Leonard, not Madeleine, is the character with the most influence over the others.

As I said, the book was enjoyable, and I cared about the characters; it just didn’t blow me away. As an aside, I mentioned that part of the book appeared previously in the New Yorker; in fact, two sections have appeared there over the past year and a half or so (the other is “Extreme Solitude”). It’s probably just personal preference, but I’m not really a fan of realizing that large chunks of the novel I’m reading are pieces that I’ve already read before. It makes it harder for me to integrate everything into a cohesive whole, for one thing; I read short stories very differently than I read novels, and it’s not always easy for me to break my associations with the stories to let them dissolve into the other threads of the novel. This happens a lot, of course, and I recognize that it’s useful to publish components of a book while still working through the full piece. Still, it’s not my favorite thing, and I almost always end up feeling like I enjoyed the stories more than the novel.

I’ve still got some fiction lined up in my to-read pile (next up: Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk), but I’m also starting to feel the urge to read some good non-fiction. We’ll see what comes next.

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