Author: Jeffrey Eugenides

Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Posted November 17, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 2 Comments

Book Review:  The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey EugenidesThe Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
on October 2011
Genres: Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 416
Source: my shelves

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What exactly is the “marriage plot”? According to Wikipedia:

Marriage plot is a term used, often in academic circles, to categorize a storyline that recurs in novels most prominently, and more recently in films. Until the expansion of marriage rights to same-sex couples, this plot centered exclusively on the courtship rituals between a man and a woman and the obstacles that faced the potential couple on its way to the nuptial payoff. The marriage plot became a popular source of entertainment in the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of the bourgeois novel. The foremost practitioners of the form include some of the more illustrious names in English letters, among them Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontë sisters.

In those 18th and 19th century novels, the storyline was very linear and it always ended in marriage. The last page was usually about how everyone lived happily ever after.

In more recent years, however, the cultural dynamics of marriage in our society have gone through some major changes. Same-sex couples are demanding marriage rights (and rightfully so), the divorce rate is rising steadily, and more people are choosing not to get married at all. For many people, marriage is no longer seen as the ultimate goal in life as it was commonly treated in the 18th and 19th centuries. In this article that Jeffrey Eugenides wrote for The Millions back in October, he talks about how the traditional marriage plot is “no longer available to the modern novelist” and explains what his goal was in writing his latest book, The Marriage Plot:

Instead of writing a marriage plot, I could deconstruct one and then put it back together, consistent with the religious, social, and sexual conventions prevailing today. I could write a novel that wasn’t a marriage plot but that, in a certain way, was; a novel that drew strongly from tradition without being at all averse to modernity.

And so he did exactly that, and did it very well.

The Marriage Plot takes place in the early 1980s, and opens on graduation day at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The story revolves around, and is told from the individual perspectives of, three soon-to-be-graduates: Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus. Madeleine is an English major who has written her senior thesis on the marriage plot in 19th century English literature; Leonard Bankhead is a charismatic and somewhat mysterious Biology major and manic-depressive whom Madeleine ends up having an intense relationship with; and Mitchell is the relatively ordinary guy who studies religion, is in love with Madeleine, and is convinced that they will be married some day. In the year after their graduation from Brown, Madeleine and Leonard move to Cape Cod where things hover between tense and more tense, Mitchell does some major traveling and soul-searching while trying to forget about Madeleine and his feelings for her, and they all learn that life doesn’t always turn out the way they imagined it would. The Marriage Plot is definitely a throwback to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with modern elements replacing those of the 19th century, and with modern plot twists.

I started reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ books two years ago when my mother recommended I read Middlesex and I loved that book. Then I read The Virgin Suicides this year and was pretty disappointed with it–I’m glad I read Middlesex first. When I learned that he would be publishing The Marriage Plot this year, I was excited and a little apprehensive at the same time; I was crossing my fingers that I would love it as much as I loved Middlesex. Eugenides did not disappoint. I really enjoyed The Marriage Plot and the characters were great. There were things I could connect with and sympathize with in all of them. I liked the way Eugenides chose to tell the story by moving back and forth between each of their perspectives. I am not always a fan of this method as it can be confusing if not done correctly, but Eugenides pulled it off amazingly well. He also did a very thorough job of getting into the mind of a manic-depressive and describing how manic depression affected every aspect of Leonard’s life. Because of this, Leonard ended up being my favorite character and the one whom I had the most sympathy for. His story was truly heartbreaking. There has been much speculation about whether or not Eugenides modeled Leonard after David Foster Wallace, and although Eugenides has denied any connection and swears the similarities are just coincidence, I couldn’t help but picture DFW the entire time I was reading the book. The resemblance was uncanny. That could be another reason why I fell in love with Leonard’s character. Either way, when I finished the book I couldn’t stop wondering and worrying about Leonard’s fate and where his manic depression would take him. Poor Leonard.

I would recommend this book to any adult who likes literary fiction, and I would obviously recommend it to any fan of Eugenides’ work. His spin on the traditional marriage plot was interesting, funny, serious, sometimes heartbreaking, and an overall very enjoyable experience.

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(Click here to learn more about Jeffrey Eugenides.)

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