I have to confess that I am not one of them — while I own copies of both previous works, I haven’t got to them yet. When I noticed that The Marriage Plot was being released this fall, I figured I would start my Eugenides voyage with the new novel and then decide whether to explore the previous two.
I have confessed my fondness for “school” novels — you can find references to a number of my favorites in my review of Tobias Wolff’s Old School. The “college” novel with older but still young characters holds equal appeal — Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was a fun read and I may be the only person besides George W. Bush who actually liked Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons (and that may be the only thing that the former President and I have in common).
So the description of The Marriage Plot had appeal. It is set in the early 1980s and the central characters are about to graduate from Rhode Island’s Brown University. The most important of these is Madeleine, the daughter of the president of a New Jersey liberal arts college and an apple who has fallen not far from the tree, as the novel’s opening makes clear:
To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-sized but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so lost in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth. And then you waited for the result, hoping for “Artistic”, or “Passionate”, thinking you could live with “Sensitive”, secretly fearing “Narcissistic” and “Domestic”, but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel differently depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: “Incurably Romantic”.
That’s a long quote, but you can measure your potential response to Eugenides’ novel from that opening paragraph. If it strikes you as claptrap, you won’t like the book. As for me, I was hooked — I too read those authors as a student. In fact, as a high school student, the first argument that I ever had with my mother over my reading came when she stole my library copy of John Updike’s Couples for a parental assessment and angrily demanded to know why I was reading pornography.
Eugenides wastes little time in underlining that Incurable Romantic conclusion. We meet Madeleine as she is awakening on graduation day with a massive hangover — and facing breakfast with her parents before the grad ceremony.
One of the nice things about being twenty-two, or about being Madeleine Hanna, was that three weeks of romantic anguish, followed by a night of epic drinking, didn’t do much visible damage. Except for a puffiness around her eyes, Madeleine looked like the same pretty, dark-haired person as usual. The symmetries of her face — the straight nose, the Katherine Hepburn-ish cheekbones and jawline — were almost mathematical in their precision. Only the slight furrow in her brow gave evidence of the slightly anxious person that Madeleine felt herself, intrinsically, to be, the formerly gawky seventh-grader taller than the boys, always hunching in school photos, the awkward girl who was still there, deep inside, ready to leap out at any moment and ruin things.
The cause of that anguish is the second major character, Leonard Bankhead, who until three weeks ago was Madeleine’s boyfriend. He is brilliant and very successful with women so it was a bit a triumph for her that the two had planned to spend the summer co-habiting at the prestigious Cape Cod biology laboratory where Leonard has a research fellowship. Madeleine is expecting to be accepted into one of the Ivy League schools for graduate work (her advisor has submitted her thesis on the marriage plot for publication) and looked forward to the Cape Cod summer as a perfect break. Alas, Leonard is manic depressive and has been self-treating himself by reducing his medication, which produced a predictable breakdown that led to their break-up. Madeline is still hoping for a reconciliation, incurable romantic that she is.
And finally there is nerdish, bookish Mitchell Grammaticus, a student of Christian mysticism and a “friend” of Madeleine’s whom she dangerously flirts with when she is bored. When he once took that flirtation seriously and made a pass (the first he had attempted with anyone in his life) she got angry and the two haven’t spoken in months. Despite that, he is obsessed with her in his quiet way — and takes comfort in the fact that in Jane Austen novels (part of Madeleine’s speciality) the female heroines don’t recognize who is their perfect match until late in the novel. He is very hopeful that that fictional precedent will prove to be the case in this real-life instance. The early 1980s featured its own recession, making employment options for religious mysticism grads slim, and Mitchell plans to head for Europe and India for an American version of a “gap year”, hoping his absence will cause Madeleine to come to her senses and realize he is the one for her.
For the first half of this novel, Eugenides does a great job of developing these stories, not just in bringing to life the three characters, but also the parents, fellow students and professors and advisors around them — the very particular and strange world of the university and its inhabitants comes into focus.
Alas, for this reader at least, the author loses his way when graduation is over and the three head off. Leonard and Madeleine do reconcile, although not very successfully — their summer stay on Cape Cod is an emotional roller-coaster, resulting in a marriage that quickly shows why incurable romantics should not marry manic depressives. As for Mitchell, the high point of his story is a three-week stay as a volunteer at one of Mother Teresa’s hospices in Calcutta. This action allows the author to develop some widely varied set pieces in places like Paris, Monte Carlo, Greece and Calcutta — unfortunately, none of those pieces adds much depth to the characters whom he has developed so well in the first half of the book. The second half wasn’t bad, it simply did not realize the potential that the first half showed.
In the final analysis, I would place The Marriage Plot in the same rank as Tartt’s and Wolfe’s college novels — highly entertaining reads with some very perceptive observations on aspects of the “college” life. That makes for very good escapism, but doesn’t deliver on the promise of the opening paragraph with its reference to all those great authors. It would be unfair to say that Eugenides is setting himself up as comparable to Wharton, James and Austen but having introduced the names (and borrowed the concept from them that produces the title of the novel) I would have liked to see at least more of an attempt to approach their brilliance. Despite that, I will go back to his first two books — based on this book, I’d say comparisons with Updike and Wolfe are entirely in order, even if ones with Wharton and James are not.