I’m not sure how I felt about Jeffrey Eugenides’s latest book, The Marriage Plot. It was interesting, but I reached the end feeling like everything I had read up until that point was rendered moot by the outcome. I enjoyed the journey, but I’m disappointed there wasn’t more to the end.
The book opens on the morning of college graduation in the early 1980s, and alternately introduces Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell. Mitchell is in love with Madeleine and convinced that he is going to marry her someday, despite all evidence to the contrary. After graduation he plans on travelling Europe and India on a spiritual journey, trying to find peace and overcome his feelings. Leonard has a fellowship lined up where he will study yeast cells, but has a mental breakdown and is unable to graduate with the others. We learn that Leonard is manic-depressive, and feels like his medications cause more problems than they solve. Madeleine, the heroine, is in love with the idea of saving Leonard, which she mistakes for actually being in love with him. She loves Victorian novels and throughout the course of the novel, works on an article for publication, titled “The Marriage Plot.”
The first 100 pages revolve around the day of graduation and deep character exploration. When they finally paraded down the streets, I was surprised to realize that a little over 100 pages had passed, and not even 24 hours had gone by in the book. The structure switches back and forth between these three main characters, giving us intimate knowledge of their personalities and motivations. While this is very interesting, at times the character sections dragged. They picked up toward the end, as every character’s life changed, and wove together the what had happened over the course of the year after graduation.
Basically, Madeleine and Leonard date. But Mitchell loves Madeleine. Madeleine and Leonard break up. Leonard has a meltdown. Madeleine takes him back. But she kisses Mitchell while she is drunk. Mitchell goes abroad. He undergoes several spiritual transformations, all while pining over Madeleine and hoping she doesn’t marry Leonard. Meanwhile, Madeleine and Leonard move in together. Leonard starts to get better(ish). Madeleine and Leonard get married. Mitchell gets unbelievably sad. Leonard gets worse. Mitchell returns home and has a conversation with Leonard about religious experiences. Leonard leaves Madeleine. Madeleine and Mitchell move in together, in Madeleine’s parents’ home. Mitchell finally gets to sleep with Madeleine. The next day they decide to stay friends. The end.
Was that super annoying to read? I hope so.
The book isn’t as shallow as I’ve just portrayed. Like I mentioned, Eugenides offers incredible depth into the characters’ minds. Leonard must deal with side effects from lithium that change who he is, and he struggles with controlling his own dosage when he believes the doctors are wrong. Madeleine must separate herself from the “Stage Ones” that get married right after college (even though she does anyway) and work hard preparing grad school applications, wrestling with her future, and dragging Leonard with her. And Mitchell just kind of floats along, trying to identify with different religious practices.
I did enjoy the read – Eugenides is a good writer – but by the end I was just…disappointed. It was such a let down, after all that build-up, when Mitchell and Madeleine didn’t actually work out (although, by that time I didn’t want Mitchell to settle for being Madeleine’s second choice). And Leonard just annoyed the hell out of me throughout.
If you like character exploration and literary novels, I would recommend this. Or if you like Eugenides and want to read more of his oeuvre.
Here is another review of the book (and some of Eugenides’s other work). The last paragraph proposes an interesting situation.
Now I move on to a much different read – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!