Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot”

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides’ long-awaited follow-up to his 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, is clever. There’s one problem with a book being clever, however: the author probably wasn’t going for that. It’s a bit like having a crush tell you you’re merely nice, and not transcendently or life-alteringly wonderful, that you’re worthy of friendship but not heartfelt commitment. It’s a lesser quality.

The book begins on graduation morning at Brown, the three main characters beginning in starkly different places. Our heroine, Madeleine, wakes up with a pounding headache—a blurry night of drink after drink after drink to blame. Her parents, the incomparable Phyllida and Alton, had arrived and planned to take their daughter to breakfast. From there, we are introduced to her illness: she is heartbroken. Having regrettably scuttled her relationship with Leonard weeks earlier, Madeleine is in no mood for breakfast or her parents’ penetrating questions about Leonard—whom the couple still believes Madeleine will live with that fall on Cape Cod. 

Madeleine’s undergraduate passion is English. Her undergraduate thesis, the aptly named “I Thought You’d Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot,” is given encouraging marks, enough to dull the pain of a rejection from Yale’s Literature Department. A Victorian devotee—with some Regency lit strewn in—Madeleine really has no idea what she wants to do or where she wants to go. Some scenes take place in Madeleine’s literature classes, particularly Semiotics 211, where she first encounters the hulking Leonard—a biology major not entirely out of place in a heavyweight lit class. Their initial flirtation is well handled by Eugenides. If there’s anything wrong with these contextual tidbits in the book’s middle pages, it’s the insertion of reference after reference to literary theories and “classic” (at least by Brown 1982 standards) texts. They serve a purpose—a vain one, perhaps, but a purpose nevertheless. Having never read Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse or Balzac’s Sarrasine, I felt a little out of place.

But so did Madeleine. And this is worth noting because it’s one of the only places in The Marriage Plot where it feels natural and right and thoughtlessly sensible to ally with her; it’s an earnest bit that goes a long way in endearing her, but also reminding the reader just how young Madeleine is.

And yet sometimes she worried about what those musty old books were doing to her. Some people majored in English to prepare for law school. Others became journalists. The smartest guy in the honors program, Adam Vogel, a child of academics, was planning on getting a Ph.D. and becoming an academic himself. That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical—because they weren’t musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in the first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.

Her motives in studying literature are pure and wonderful: she likes books. That’s all.

So when, on graduation day, Madeleine finds out that Leonard is 1. in the hospital and 2. manic-depressive and 3. will not graduate from Brown on time due to three incompletes, she is fatally resolute: they will get back together. He will get better. They will, as planned, proceed to Cape Cod in the fall for Leonard’s fellowship at the prestigious Pilgrim Lake Laboratory. She will do everything she can to make sure Leonard is better.

Poor Madeleine. So young. And so romantic.

And while all of this happens, Mitchell—a longtime close-ish friend of Madeleine’s, and one of her most unsubtle admirers—is busing tables in Detroit, saving up for a backpacking trip across Europe and into India with his best friend Larry. The trip is problematic from the get-go: a short stay with Larry’s girlfriend in Paris results in arguments about feminist theory and Mitchell blowing money on hotel rooms so Larry can get laid peacefully. These are some of the finest scenes in The Marriage Plot. A Midwesterner forced to defend his earnest sensibilities before a woman in Paris high on her own sophomoric, enlightened sense of brazenness; it’s hard not to feel for Mitchell.

All the while, Mitchell, a religious studies major, is trying to reconcile his faith in God—or at least start constructing it. A professor at Brown assured him that he would be admitted  to any of the east coast’s finest divinity schools, should he desire. But a drunken night in Venice results in what Mitchell remembers to be some regrettable and perhaps unwanted oral sex from Larry, a scene strangely glossed over in the context of Mitchell’s religious pursuits. How does he reconcile this with his religious studies? Finally, in Athens, Larry decides to stay, having met a Greek man. The two friends part, a little awkwardly.

After some time in India, Mitchell feels genuinely devout, having worked in one of Mother Theresa’s hospitals, having bought a cross necklace and shaved his head. He felt he had internalized the Lord’s Prayer—just like in Franny and Zooey. But he still wasn’t over Madeleiene, buoyed somewhat by their having made out in August before he left for Europe (something Madeleine regrets and Leonard knows nothing about). A letter from Madeleine filled him with the hope that they would one day marry—despite her resolution that they were to be friends; and that this was right.

Mitchell’s quest for religious enlightenment is the book’s solid B-story, an okay attempt at transcending a plot built around a love triangle; a plot designed to make men and women alike decide quite viscerally, Am I more Leonard or more Mitchell? But while Mitchell’s quest for God seems important (albeit a little too academic), his longing for Madeleine seems to take preponderance over all that’s on this earth and above.

(And maybe that’s why this book is so difficult to review: it’s an intensely personal story, and the reader’s reaction to it is predicated a lot on how we feel about ourselves. I don’t know. Just some inter-paragraph parenthetical musing.)

Leonard too faces problems bigger than romance. But being a mammal, his primary concern is staying with the counterpart he both loves and resents—Madeleine representing that perfect convergence of fears and desires and vanities and class issues that makes depressed geniuses like Leonard tick. She is all he wants in the whole world.

The two, Leonard and Mitchell, are united by that desire: they not only want Madeleine, they want to marry her. They want to marry the woman so intrigued by the marriage plot in literature.

What is grating, however, about The Marriage Plot is the question that comes up time and time again: why are these men captivated by Madeleine? She is beautiful, as both attest, but a little lightheaded. She calls her mother “Mummy.” She seems tremendously ungrateful of her pedigree. She is goodhearted, but maybe a little idealistic. I guess she’s 22.

As are Leonard and Mitchell, who see a beautiful girl behind a book and after sleeping with her (in Leonard’s case) want to be the only ones to ever have her; or (in Mitchell’s case) meet a family unlike theirs in accent and demeanor and diction, a family so decidedly un-Midwestern that it triggers a sort of bashfully romantic longing to not be from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, but from Connecticut or New Hampshire. Such is the depth of marriage at age 22: hold a woman’s sexuality to yourself or marry into an East Coast family.

For the reader, The Marriage Plot is not heavy lifting. The references to Eco and Barthes really don’t make much of a difference in the greater text—just some window dressing, it seems.

Despite dealing with such heavy topics—semiotics, God, depression, postcolonial India, lithium—The Marriage Plot seems so lightweight, perhaps because the stakes aren’t really all that high. No matter what happens to Leonard, Mitchell, and Madeleine in the year after graduation, they will still be 23-year-olds with Ivy League degrees. Leonard may have to come to grips with his manic depression, Madeleine may have to decide if academia offers what she desires, and Mitchell may have to reconcile his academic approach to worshipping God, but they’re still people with so much to live for.

At book’s end, all of this remains true. In a year, they’ve experienced their fair share, but they haven’t come of age. Far from it. This is just one stage.

I don’t think Eugenides would argue this point, either. The most admirable aspect of his craft is just how flawlessly constructed The Marriage Plot is. Its exploration of time is beautiful, and his metaphorical dalliances—while running a little long in individual paragraphs—are well suited for a book, primarily, about literature. Still, his references to semiotics and literary theory—the window dressing, if you will—seem a little insular, and to an extent wall him off from many of his readers. If those bits aren’t just meant to brighten the days of English majors from the early 1980s, what or whom are they there for?

Well, I guess they’re there because they interest Eugenides. His essay at The Millions about his writing process shows just how much fun this novel was for him, and how important those academic references were not only to the story but to his own enjoyment in writing it. You can’t fault a man for writing about what he likes—especially when the book itself is both a fun and fulfilling read, captivating and pleasing and, well, good. Featherweights can be all of those things.

And, as it happens, Madeleine’s academic activities at Brown become essential to the book’s end—the final, clever twist that disappoints at first, but after a night’s sleep and two cups of coffee and reflection, is fine enough, I guess. I guess. It just goes down a little too smooth. It makes too much sense. And it’s a little too charming.

That’s the problem with being clever. You’re often too sensible and too smart for your own good.

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6 thoughts on “Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot”

  1. Anni Becker says:

    Great reviewing, Kevin. Also, that excerpt– hit a little too close to home!

  2. Great review.

    I’ve loved Eugenides for so long that The Marriage Plot felt like a serious letdown, both thematically and narratively.

    What’s even more disappointing is that it might be a DECADE before we see another Eugenides novel (seriously, he’s like the Terence Malick of books).

    My full review can be found here:

    • dbcreads says:

      Thanks! I agree largely with your review, though I find myself being a tad more sympathetic to Mitchell. I tend to think there’s an asshole equilibrium between Leonard and Mitchell. Leonard, crippled by his own real (although perhaps overdiagnosed and overmedicated) depression, acts out with a self-awareness that is difficult to rationalize. Mitchell, on the other hand, is pretty much your average 22-year-old male dropped in a variety of situations he couldn’t imagine while he was in America.

      I’m curious where you think he was being sexist in the text, actually. I found his arguments with Larry’s girlfriend to be somewhat entertaining, though I felt Eugenides was being baldly unfair to Larry’s girlfriend, perhaps painting her as some hey-I-stopped-shaving-my-legs-two-whole-months-ago! feminist as a way of showing how Midwestern sensibilities and earnestness (Mitchell’s) can be lost on the wrong crowd. So he was looking at pretty girls walking down the street? C’est la vie.

      I myself am late to the Eugenides scene, so I’m trying to play catch-up with The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex during the publishing industry’s downtime around the holidays!

      • Great point about the “Asshole Equilibrium”. That’s either a novel to be or a great band name :).

        Hmm, let me try to qualify the sexism. You’re right that the scene with Claire was quite funny, but that’s really where he bothered me. Staring at waitresses and pretty girls is fine, but it just added to the general shallowness of Mitchell’s character (i don’t mean character as in “fictional character”, i mean character as in the personal kind). He defines his life around his sexual power in relation to girls, which seems very odd for a 22 year old with the world literally at his feet.

        Even when he’s supposed to be thinking about charity and salvation, he’s sexualising women. I’m not saying it’s not normal for some of that to happen, I’m saying it’s pernicious when we’re expected to like Mitchell and somehow respect his version of maleness.

        I look forward to your reviews of the other novels! Virgin Suicides is a real gem.

      • dbcreads says:

        I see what you mean. I was more disturbed by how obviously shallow his want for Madeleine was. It revolved around his own bashfulness about being from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, having taken that trip to Prettybrook early in school, having been captivated by the Hannas’ WASP thrift, etc. He was just rebelling against his roots, far as I could tell.

  3. Worried says:

    After Leonard leaves the hospital his “incompletes” are never mentioned again. Did he get them fixed up or not? During Leonard’s story it says that filling in his research preferences for Pilgrim Lake was the only thing he got done that summer!
    Man, I am stressed out about this. I need him to get those incompletes sorted.

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