In the first chapter of The Marriage Plot, an elderly Brown English professor lays out a theory–
“The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely.”
When life decisions are no longer irreversible, when adherence to societal norms and personal reputation are no longer essential–what kind of stakes can a novel really have? Has contemporary culture rendered the novel obsolete? Or at least impotent?
Having teed up the question, Eugenides spends the rest of the novel formulating a response, recasting the quintessential 19th century novel with characters from the Brown class of 1982. The key themes–class, love, and identity (with the requisite does of faith)–are all all present and accounted for.
As intellectually unfashionable as it is in the era of deconstructionism, Madeleine Hanna is writing her senior thesis on the marriage plot: Edith Wharton, Henry James, Austen, George Elliot, the Brontes. Madeleine shares similarities with the 19th century heroines she studies: a noted beauty, intelligent and introspective; proper and concerned with maintaining appearances; moneyed, with an air of fading gentility. And, like 19th century heroines so often are, she’s caught between two suitors. Leonard Bankhead is brilliant, charming and dynamic; the handsome, unknowable bad boyfriend every twenty-something girl seems to experience. Mitchell Grammaticus is a friend with potential, earnest, awkward, sweet, the perpetual back-up plan.
Initially, the trajectory seems clear–but as the novel progresses it becomes less a love triangle than a three-pronged coming of age story. Eugenides unfolds each of the characters with enormous compassion. The passages describing the conflicts of their interior lives are so simple, but so relatable and truthful. At the same time, its very much about college, about books and ideas. It reminded me how exciting, how revelatory that part of my life was, and left me wanting to build a reading list.
I attended a City Arts & Lectures interview with the author a couple of years ago. I’d bought tickets on a whim because I liked The Virgin Suicides. (In case it’s not completely obvious at this point, I tend to like anything that plays with form and format. The Greek chorus of neighborhood boys and the mythic tenor or the narration were exactly calibrated to appeal to my tastes.) The interviewer focused on Eugenides’ more recent works–something I’d probably have anticipated if I thought about if for more than five seconds–a short story collection, which I mentally conflated with the world tour in The Marriage Plot. I left the theater with the hazy impression that The Marriage Plot was mostly about a young man, unrequited love, and world travel–and 1/3 of it is! I purchased my copy from one of the Bay Area’s last Barnes & Nobles, prior to a screening of John Wick III, over protests from my partner who reminded me that I do need more books.
Defaced with marginalia, smashed bugs and trail dirt, then mailed to a friend–my new favorite way to dispose of books.
Soundtrack for this post
The author would certainly disagree (the epigraph comes from “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads) but I prefer my choice: