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The Marriage Plot

by Jeffrey Eugenides

A Review by Kathryn Roberts

Jeffrey Eugenides is at his best when focusing on characters in transition and young love. With his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, he explored the desire to remain young and the fear of adulthood, with heartbreakingly beautiful prose. Middlesex fit more smoothly into the confines of a traditional realist novel. The Marriage Plot, with its close focus on three recent college graduates, reads like a balance between the two; it is a more emotional realism, a zoomed in exploration of the main characters.
The title, referring to the driving force of novels before modernism--every woman is seeking a marriage and her pursuit and eventual securing of or failure to secure an advantageous union offers the primary motivation--and the focus of Madeleine's senior thesis ("I Thought You'd Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot"), plays little actual relevance to the overall story. Instead, the novel essentially is a coming-of-age story, revolving around a love triangle between Madeleine, a beautiful, wealthy young woman with no sense of where she wants to go after college; Mitchell Grammaticus, of Michigan, whose intellectual capabilities and desire for Madeleine draw him to a search for the meaning of God; and Leonard Bankhead, Madeleine's off-and-on boyfriend, a brilliant biologist and philosopher whose mind struggles to find equilibrium.
Eugenides structures the novel through narration that switches in perspective between the three main characters. Early on, we encounter Madeleine's insecurities regarding her studies, Leonard's mental illness, and Mitchell's unrequited love, mostly in the form of flashbacks. In the midst of new action, we are given back-story in lengthy memories of the currently narrating character. Though sometimes overwhelmed by too many show-offy details, especially in the beginning of the story with the excessive amount of space dedicated to discussing the various theorists or the authors included on the characters' bookshelves or reading lists, Eugenides' willingness to luxuriate in the close examination of his characters' lives offers the opportunity for readers to care deeply about the triangle's outcome.
Yet, Eugenides fails to fulfill the build-up. The novel is weighted heavily toward the activity of the beginning and middle and feels rushed at the end. Though we are asked to care about all the characters, Leonard gets markedly less time as narrator, with only one section written from his perspective, whereas Madeleine's point of view comprises at least half of the book. He is abruptly written out of the book with no real satisfaction to his character's motivations. Additionally, the visual representation of Leonard once his illness becomes prevalent--especially the blue bandana around long hair, t-shirt, and shorts--is eerily similar to the appearance of David Foster Wallace, a writer of Eugenides' generation readily considered brilliant, also a philosopher, who struggled with depression and eventually committed suicide. Such a reference, especially if intended, is uncomfortable at best. Mitchell, too, is reduced to less-than-full, as his interest in God and spiritual pursuits ultimately are implied to be solely a representation of his yearning for Madeleine. His final realizations are thus dissatisfying and anti-climactic; they don't feel genuine or complete. Even Madeleine, despite her continued dominance of narration, becomes two-dimensional by the end of the novel, fading into an existence completely wrapped up in Leonard's ongoing struggles. She becomes less a young woman striving to figure herself out in the world of adults and more of a passive receiver of whatever others throw her way, resigning herself to being a supporting character rather than an active one. She doesn't develop as a character but remains stagnant and dependent.
Ultimately, The Marriage Plot offers little satisfaction that the characters we grow to care for will make it as adults. However, if we recognize that Eugenides' strength lies in his portrayal of young characters on the brink of adulthood, we can forgive the novel's reluctance to push its protagonists past this point, to illuminate the outcome of the transition, and can enjoy the familiar feeling of being ungrounded in youth.
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