It has been nine years since Jeffrey Eugenides released his Pulitzer Prize winner, Middlesex.
His much anticipated novel, The Marriage Plot could be seen to be, in part, memoir. The book opens in 1982 as three bright young students attend their graduation at Brown University -Eugenides graduated from Brown in 1981. The storyline goes back in time to give the reader background to the three central characters and then moves on to their year out or gap year.
Madeleine Hanna, the central female, comes from an affluent middle class family. She is an English major studying the suitably romantic Victorian novels. Her two love interests, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus are both from humble beginnings and study science and religion.
Eugenides shows the discordance in Madeleine’s study of literature, most notably romantic literature, and love in the real world. Her study of Jane Austen and George Eliot ill prepared her for life outside the university gates.
As Madeleine falls in love with the much admired Leonard Bankhead she discovers it is not quite the romance she has read about and aspired to in 19th century novels.
So begins the central theme of the book - to discover whether or not marriage (in the Austen sense) is still viable. Eugenides attempts to violate the very premise of the marriage plot with the introduction of Leonard’s daily read A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes which challenges the social constructs of love. A definitive contrast to the romantic novels Madeleine has been studying.
Eugenides tongue in cheek attitude to the pretentious intellectual graduates resonates throughout the novel. Early on he draws attention to the cracks beginning to appear in Madeleine’s perceptions:
“Madeleine’s love troubles began at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.”
After university Leonard and Madeleine move together to Cape Cod, Madeleine stays at home to read whilst Leonard goes out to work in a lab. Mitchell sets off on his travels to find God and forget Madeleine. He travels from Monaco to Calcutta volunteering for Mother Teresa, a trip Eugenides also did after university.
There are parts of this novel which are horribly dark, Leonard’s battle with bipolar, his volatility and state of mania in the idyllically named Cape Cod. Mitchell fights his own demons as he witnesses deformity and squalor in India, desperate to help, but realising there is little that can be done. Madeleine, in contrast, pales into insignificance as a saintly goddess, supporting Leonard during his outbursts of mania whilst remaining the high priestess to Mitchell. She seems invisible, pivotal to the plot simply by being, but she appears to do nothing. Her one triumph is her thesis which is eventually published: “I Thought You’d Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot.”
Throughout the story there is a feeling that Madeleine needs rescuing and indeed she is, first by her mother and then by Mitchell. Madeleine has the demeanour of a pathetic heroine, privileged and undeserving.
Eugenides batters down the marriage plot theory by introducing impossible challenges - Leonard’s mental illness and Madeleine’s twee upbringing. He shows a gaping chasm between Austen’s world and the real world, a world where the prenup is standard and women are no longer dependent on the men for a living.
Ultimately though, The Marriage Plot is about the morbidly dark years of youth. The three central characters are trying to work out life, desperately searching for meaning. This is a coming of age novel that looks at the way our perceptions of marriage and love have changed over the years.
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