three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
56-Jan-Feb-2012
user_rating: 
0

A-The Marriage PlotThe Marriage Plot is Jeffrey Eugenides' third novel, following the Pulitzer Prize–winning Middlesex (2002). We profiled the author and his work in our Nov/Dec 2011 issue.

The Story: At Brown University, WASPish beauty Madeleine Hanna is writing her thesis on the Victorian novelists' marriage plot--that traditional story of courtship that often explores whether the lovers are suitable for each other. When she enrolls in a trendy semiotics class to see what all the fuss is about, she meets Leonard Bankhead--a brilliant, charismatic, and brooding biologist. She falls in love with him (though her reading of the French deconstructionists puts even the notion of love into question, unlike the 19th-century novels with their satisfying denouements), but not without first disappointing Mitchell Grammaticus, smart, earnest, and hopelessly in love with Madeleine. The Marriage Plot opens the day they graduate from Brown in 1982, floats back to their academic and romantic exploits, and then follows them their first year out. As the real world makes them reevaluate everything they learned in school, they soon realize that life rarely delivers the expected.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 406 pages. $28. ISBN: 9780374203054

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The love triangle is a throwback to Austen, and Eugenides seems to be casting his lot with the classic novel. ... Yet no matter how dirty the bathwater, the postmodern baby is still there, smiling. The ideas are debated, names like William Gass appear in the text, a Joycean reference gleams like a beacon for English majors, and Maddy is devoted to A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes." Carolyn Kellogg

Salon 4 of 5 Stars
"Exquisite guilt and wicked enjoyment are more or less what Eugenides intends the readers of The Marriage Plot to experience. ... It is a headlong, openhearted, shameless embrace (make that a bear hug) of the old-fashioned novel, by which I mean the kind written before 1900." Laura Miller

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Eugenides, who himself graduated from Brown in 1983, re-creates the feel of that pre-Internet, pre-cellphone time with vivid detail: the Plasmatics T-shirts, the toe socks, the crinkly pale-blue aerogram letters to and from friends traveling in Europe, the way everyone in the English department seems to be reading but possibly not understanding Derrida. ... Eugenides, a master storyteller, has a remarkable way of twisting his narrative in a way that seems effortless; taking us backward and forward in time to fill in details." Moira Macdonald

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Jeffrey Eugenides's new novel, The Marriage Plot, starts down the aisle sparkling with humor like a modern version of Pride and Prejudice but before reaching the altar, it veers into the romantic disappointments of The Portrait of a Lady and finally descends perilously close to Ethan Frome. ... Part of Eugenides's appeal in these pages is the decorum he somehow manages to maintain and mock at the same time." Ron Charles

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Unlike the manic-depressive Leonard, who veers between high-wire ups and brooding downs, this novel very much occupies the safe middle ground; there is nothing very bravura about it, though Mr. Eugenides's ability to make us care about Madeleine's romantic travails and at least one of her suitors results in a story that steadily gains in emotional intensity and amplitude as it rumbles along. ... Although Mr. Eugenides manages to make Madeleine's feelings about Leonard thoroughly palpable, he has a harder time turning Leonard into a full-fledged human being." Michiko Kakutani

Telegraph (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"There is a fourth omnipresent figure--Leonard's lithium-controlled mania. Eugenides lays bare its terrors without sentiment, and ultimately without rancour. A marvellous, compulsive storyteller, richly allusive, he reminds us that while love may not always triumph, it follows its own wayward course to the end." Catherine Taylor

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"If chronicling the Derrida debates and romantic travails of perpetually self-regarding undergrads, even ones as sharply drawn as the trio here, sounds beneath Eugenides' considerable gifts, well, it can feel that way at times. Plot's story line wobbles and ultimately loses its way. Still, there are serious pleasures here for people who love to read: diamond-sharp observations and dazzling sentences that nearly justify the nine-year wait." Leah Greenblatt

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"The Marriage Plot is dedicated to ‘the roomies,' and it possesses the texture and pain of lived experience. ... [Madeleine] is given nearly half the novel, including its longest, opening section--not surprisingly, considering her creator's fascination with female experience--yet she somehow recedes behind the screen of Leonard's needs." William Deresiewicz

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"One of Mr. Eugenides's many subtle tricks in The Marriage Plot is to make these three characters embody the ideas that disable them. ... In many ways this novel is sly, fun entertainment, a confection for English majors and book lovers--but it leaves a bad aftertaste." Sam Sacks

Guardian (UK) HH
"In tilting the focus so emphatically towards the wholesome and ordinary, Eugenides seems to have restricted his access to his own considerable powers. The lively intelligence of the earlier books has little to grapple with in these mostly unremarkable characters as they make their intellectual and geographic grand tours, and consequently much of the writing veers between effortful smartness and a kind of half-hearted blah." James Lasdun

Critical Summary

Reception to The Marriage Plot depended, in part, on how critics read the novel. "It is a headlong, openhearted, shameless embrace ... of the old-fashioned novel," praised Salon, and if it doesn't present itself "as much more than the story of a young woman trying to decide between two suitors," it contains a large capacity for humanity. But for some of the critics who read the novel this way, it's ho-hum love triangle and characters seem too "wholesome and ordinary" a topic for so gifted a writer (Guardian). Yet on a deeper level, Eugenides uses literature as a touchstone for love, for understanding how a "marriage plot" might be constructed around a contemporary heroine for whom the stakes seem smaller than they were for the Victorians. He also imbues characters with ideas that cripple them (Mitchell, seeking spirituality in India, can't truly believe) and plays with concepts like postmodernism just to challenge them--all with mixed results. But no matter how one reads into the novel, it is an age-old story, well told, about how to live, how to believe, and, not least, how to love.