The Marriage Plot | Jeffrey Eugenides

It is a matter of some embarrassment for a reviewer to review a book about other books. Who would blame a reader standing outside this pile-on of literary self-consciousness for taking one look at it and then backing away fast? The rare example to which this does not apply is when the book itself is so good that it invites different kinds of readers to derive pleasure—different kinds of pleasure—and meaning from it.

Canvas: Brown University, a backdrop in the novel. In Brown classrooms, sohomores will constantly come and go, talking of Michael Foucault. Photo: Chensiyua

In some ways, Eugenides seems like the best candidate among his male American contemporaries to take up this premise. His acclaimed previous Middlesex, with its Greek-American transgender protagonist, was at its best when it looked at the fears and awkwardness of adolescence, of emotional uncertainty and transgression—all interesting components for a marriage novel. Indeed, much of Eugenides’ realism might please any Victorian reader with its high standards of exactitude and authorial compassion.

Jeffrey Eugenides. Photo: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Bloomberg

Strangely, and perhaps intentionally, it is Eugenides’ novel which leads us to think of simpler times. It is a story about a time when college students had no Internet (no Facebook!), hipsters did not use that word to describe themselves, and Ivy League undergraduates did not think there was anything problematic about parachuting into India for a spot of volunteer tourism. The year is 1982, and Madeleine Hanna, “rich, handsome and clever", but quite without Emma Woodhouse’s delicious self-regard, is graduating from Brown University. She has two serious suitors. She feels proprietary towards the geeky, awkward Mitchell Grammaticus but does not want him, and desperately loves the brainy, impoverished Leonard Bankhead, who seems emotionally unavailable. Over the following year, Madeleine discovers that she wants to be an academic studying Victorian literature, while Mitchell loses himself on a backpacking trip through Europe and Asia. By the end, all three will be heartbroken for a variety of reasons.

Eugenides lays out the progress of that year in loving detail, his gift for mimesis in full flow. Perhaps readers with a very good memory of what college romances were like will feel real sympathy for the quivering threads which bind its heroes and heroine. For others, unfortunately, it will be tedious. Worse, Eugenides’ postmodern flair for the interesting digression or sideshow, so much in evidence in Middlesex, does not succeed in creating a single memorable character outside the triangle here.

The Marriage Plot: HarperCollins, 406 pages, 399

The man-boys get more to do, unsurprisingly. But any sympathy we feel for the disoriented authorial stand-in, Mitchell, evaporates in a long section in which he backpacks into Calcutta and lands right in the middle of the poverty-spirituality-marijuana continuum. If Eugenides means this to reflect on 1982’s brand of patronizing cliches, he is very subtle about it indeed.

Less subtle is the uncanny resemblance that Leonard, the other suitor, bears to one of Eugenides’ own literary generation. The bandana-wearing, tobacco-chewing, manic-depressive Leonard is the subject of some of this novel’s keenest, most painful writing, but he has too much in common with the late David Foster Wallace for us to separate him from the brilliant young novelist and essayist whose own depression led him to suicide in 2008. Can there be such a thing as a roman à clef which didn’t happen in the real world?

Some of Eugenides’ better intentions break through all this trivia. He is occasionally acute as he fights, through his characters, to understand the recalibration of relationships and romance in a world where feminism has raised our expectations of men and women, and his final resolution for two of the three characters, like Darcy’s adieu to Elizabeth Bennet, is charity itself.

Eugenides is not one of those novelists who needs a reality check; his grasp of our emotional inadequacy and inarticulacy remains superb. Perhaps what he needed with this novel was a literary check; to crane his neck past A Lover’s Discourse and see Mansfield Park again: To see what the marriage plotters did with this knowledge to write novels which, two centuries later, still mean something to us.

In six words

Long on marriage, short on love.