The Marriage Plot
4th Estate, 2011
It's the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.
As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different suitors, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead - charismatic loner and college Darwinist - turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus - who's been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange - resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his wife. Over the next year, as the members of the triangle graduate from college and enter the real world, they will be forced to re-evaluate everything.
Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, pre-nups, and divorce?
The Marriage Plot made it onto my to-read list as soon as I knew of its publication, mostly because I am a big fan of Eugenides previous two novels (The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex). My enthusiasm was slightly dampened by the less-than-complimentary reviews I glimpsed from some quarters, but when I received this book as a Christmas gift, I dove straight in.
Well, almost. I read the first few pages, in which I was hooked by the descriptions of Madeleine's bookshelves and her inner turmoil on the morning before her graduation. Then I got distracted by Christmas and Alan Partridge's autobiography (I, Partridge), and it took me a few weeks to come back round to The Marriage Plot.
I was pulled into Madeleine's story immediately, until I was pushed away again by the lengthy and seemingly unnecessary descriptions of semiotics and all the look-at-me-aren't-I-clever college students spouting their look-at-me-aren't-I-clever thoughts about religion and discourse. Once this has passed, however, the book became much more enjoyable again.
For some reason, I am obviously drawn towards New England college based novels (Prep and The Secret History springing to mind as two of my favourites). In this one, the three main characters have just graduated from Brown University. It's 1982, and they're all faced with growing up and finding themselves in a world that doesn't particular seem to want them (the parallels between the recession of then and now was interesting). Mitchell chooses escape - travel and religious experimentation. Madeleine, meanwhile, chooses to follow Leonard, who is attempting to manage manic depression.
As a result, the book alternates between Madeleine and Leonard's story, and Mitchell's travels around the world, their link being Mitchell's enduring love for Madeleine. The final third of the book was probably my favourite, in which everyone has returned "home" to find that they still haven't figured it all out. More importantly, it was here, finally, that Madeleine appears to discover what she wants, and makes a decision based on this, rather than on anyone else.
I will always enjoy Eugenides' writing - it pulls me in without me ever really knowing why, and what is a relatively simple story (underneath it all) was sufficiently rich to keep me hooked up until the end.
Overall rating: 8.5/10
Book source: My own shelf; received as a gift.