The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan
Review copy provided by the publisher
It is the early 1980’s, and the reader is introduced to Madeline Hanna, an English major, who is writing her senior thesis on the marriage plot that lies at the heart of many of the great English novels. We also meet the two most important men in Madeline’s life – Leonard Bankhead, her super-intelligent, slightly strange boyfriend, and Mitchell Grammaticus, who has always been Madeline’s friend but who secretly believes the two of them are destined to be together. As the three of them graduate from college and transition into the real world, everything they thought they knew about themselves and the world around them is challenged as they are forced to confront many of the “big questions” the world throws at them.
The Marriage Plot is an incredibly ambitious piece of fiction, and for the most part I found that it delivered. It’s funny, because when I started the book I wasn’t getting what the fuss was all about, but as it progressed I started liking it more and more, and by the end (which I thought was perfect) I realized how much I really did enjoy it. And the more I’ve been thinking about the overall experience, the more I understand how great the novel actually is. It’s one of those situations where I needed to sit with it for a while before fully comprehending what an impact it had on me. But now that I’ve had that opportunity I can say that I think this might be my favorite of the two Eugenides I’ve read (the other being Middlesex).
When I think about what makes The Marriage Plot so great, I think it’s mostly the characters. Eugenides created incredibly smart, nuanced, interesting, and most of all complicated characters in Madeline, Leonard, and Mitchell. Each of the three of them has their own demons to overcome over the course of the novel – some more serious than others – and their struggles are exactly what makes them seem so human. As the three of them grow up and transition to adulthood in the “real world” (as opposed to in college) their true personalities emerge and the relationships between the three of them endure huge changes. What I loved about the book is that while each of the three of them had their own separate paths, when the story was focused on one of them, the other two were always in the background, sort of hovering in a way. It was extremely subtle in some cases, but it was almost as though I could always feel the presence of each of the three of them, no matter who the novel was focused on at that particular moment.
I have to mention that I actually listened to the audiobook of The Marriage Plot, which I thought was very well done. The narrator, David Pittu, was a new voice to me but he did a fine job. I can safely say that listening to this one would be a wise choice.
I think this is another case of my not being able to articulate what made this book so special, but take it from me – The Marriage Plot is not to be missed. While I was unsure about my feelings for the book in the beginning, I quickly realized how well-written and engaging this book was and I ended up being extremely impressed with it overall. Madeline, Leonard, and Mitchell are fully realized characters that the reader is hard-pressed not to care about; they got into my heart for sure. Highly recommended.