Review: The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

When one of your favourite authors only writes one book every ten years, it’s pretty exciting when you realise that yes, a decade has rolled by and Jeffrey Eugenides has popped out another one.  I’ve already reviewed The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex on this thing – that review has actually been viewed twice as much as any of my other posts and if you ask me it’s not very well written but there you go.  Anyway, back to The Marriage Plot.  

The Marriage Plot deals with Madeline, an English graduate specialising in the Victorian marriage plot who is in a bumpy relationship with Leonard, a bipolar biologist – simultaneously there is Mitchell, a theology graduate who believes that he and Madeline are destined to be together.  The narrative starts the morning of Madeline’s graduation, she wakes up hungover with a dubious stain on her dress, fights with Mitchell and then skips her graduation to chase after Leonard.  Madeline got issues.  The novel continues, shuttling between the three main characters as it becomes clear which of them Madeline will marry.

I was disappointed.  There.  Months of excitement waiting for the paperback and not ruining it for myself by reading it in the bookshop which is something I am prone to do …  I didn’t hate it, in fact I quite liked it but it didn’t pack as much weight as the other two did.  I read The Virgin Suicides at 15 and I think for me it was my Catcher in the Rye, it’s the plural first person voice again describing the tragic deaths of these young girls, it’s pretty haunting.  I read Middlesex at 20 and it is a very powerful account of Cal’s search for his own identity.  The Marriage Plot just didn’t have as strong a voice … moving between the three main characters did not make anything like as much of an impact and Madeline was fairly boring for most of the time.  I loved the first two, I had looked forward to this one and it just didn’t hit the same note.

I get broadly speaking what this book was trying to do – to take the 19th century Jane Austen style marriage plot and put it in 1982.  Madeline’s professor states that this was the peak of novels and everything went down hill from there, there are comments on whether anybody would have cared who Emma Woodhouse married if she could have got a divorce/Isabel Archer might have been protected from Gilbert Osmond had she only had a flipping pre-nuptial agreement.  Yet spoilers when it all goes wrong, Madeline wails to her father that she doesn’t care that her capital is secure, her life is still ruined.  We may have get out clauses now but that doesn’t immunise against heartbreak.

It’s an interesting idea and something I have myself given some thought to – in a world where it is socially acceptable to have sex outside of marriage, what is the function of the marriage plot in fiction?  Bridget Jones’ Diary took Pride and Prejudice into the 20th century, Clueless did the same for Emma – instead the heroine longs for a boyfriend.  You can see it coming a mile off in chick lit, Girl meets Boy A and hates him, then meets Boy B and loves him.  Boy B turns out to be a jerk, Boy A turns out to awesome.  Girl and Boy A are happy.  That is how the marriage plot works, , there can be quirks of originality etc but there you have it.  

Imagine Jeffrey Eugenides 20 years younger -> Mitchell

Mitchell takes the Mr Knightley sort of part … you can’t really say he’s a Mr Darcy but I suppose there are elements.  Anyway, after rejection from Madeline, he goes on a tour of Europe and India and my alarm bells started to ring.  A quick search of Google confirmed my suspicions – this is what Jeffrey Eugenides did himself after graduating from college, right down to the part where Mitchell volunteers with Mother Teresa.  Still, although he is written with a huge amount of affection, Eugenides stops short of making him the Hero.  The way he writes Mitchell’s youthful religious yearnings is fond yet gently mocking – I thought he bordered just about on the side of sweet but I could see he was teetering dangerously towards navel-gazing.

It’s funny – the part of the novel that I thought worked best was the part about being in your early 20s, being an idiot and getting yourself into stupid situations then having to limp back to your parents who are past the point of being able to be of any practical assistance.  I am currently in that stage.  I really liked Mitchell – it’s funny, I actually didn’t find his desire for Madeline that strange even though it seems to be coupled with his religious fervour in an attempt to make him seem obsessive.  The way it was set up, Mitchell had spent Thanksgiving with Madeline’s family one year and simply had a moment of realisation that they could fit in each other’s lives, that the two of them could build a future together.  I understood why he thought that – particularly as a 19 year old college student, while dating it is rare to have those moments of connection and it is completely understandable to believe that they are a sign of things to come but alas that moment of ‘We belong’ doth not a relationship make.  I had no difficulty understanding their bond, I even sympathised with Madeline when she struggled to categorise Mitchell in her letter to him, trying to break up with him even though they were never together – I’ve had one of those myself and they can be annoying.  Mitchell clings to the idea of Madeline with that kind of intensity that you can’t quite decide is stubborn stupidity or courageous tenacity … when he started to analyse her handwriting, I just wanted to give him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder because there really is no helping some people.  

The other romantic hero was Leonard Bankhead – again, he was an interestingish character but although I could see why Madeline had fallen for him and through that sort of why she had stuck with him … I don’t know.  It just didn’t work for me.  Madeline was clearly stated to be an uncomplicated Good Girl going through a bad patch as the novel started – that this extended to spoiler alert marrying Leonard when she had clearly stated that she tried to avoid ‘unstable people’ seemed a bit far-fetched.  However, I did like Madeline and Mitchell’s categorisation of married people based on their age when they got married – Stages One, Two and Three – I know several very happy Stage Ones (people who got married right out of university) but can see rather what they were getting at.

All that being stated, I really liked the final couple of pages – the way the novel was resolved was brilliant.  Madeline receives an anti-proposal from Mitchell who after a revelation from prayer finally realises that he and Madeline are never going to be together, but that that is ok.  You know what – I don’t often quote at length but this was really quite beautiful.  Mitchell asks Madeline the Victorian literature graduate if in her studies if she had ever come across a novel

where the heroine gets married to the wrong guy and then realizes it, and then the other suitor shows up, some guy who’s always been in love with her, and then theyget together, but finally the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life? And so finally the guy doesn’t propose at all, even though he still loves her? Is there any book that ends like that?


Madeline concedes that there is not, so Mitchell quietly asks her if that would be a good ending and she replies, “Yes”.  And if we accept that Mitchell is basically Jeffrey Eugenides minus twenty years then we have to agree that this has made a good ending – a tale that does not get told enough in these bewildering times: marriage may be a wonderful thing and even the right thing for many people but it is does not solve everything.  In believing entirely in marriage, Madeline has fallen for the marriage plot and you definitely sense that she is one girl who is not getting caught twice.  

It reminded me a little bit of The Small House in Allington where Lily Dale refuses to marry James Eames simply because she has been jilted by another man and did not feel free to marry – but this is different because while that represented Trollope’s idea that a woman could really only have one clear shot at marriage, in this instance, Mitchell and Madeline simply and discreetly acknowledge that they are not going to work.  It is sad to a certain degree as I was definitely rooting for Mitchell but … it’s life, Mitchell himself said he would get over it. 

My final thought on The Marriage Plot – good but not great.  Had it been by another author, I would have rated it higher but alas I expected more from Mr Eugenides.  He has written a good book about an interesting point and also, this is definitely a book for people who like books so in that respect – why am I complaining?

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The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Published by HarperCollins UK on October 3rd 2011
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 416
ISBN: 9780007441273

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