When you only publish a book once every decade or so—and your last novel won the Pulitzer Prize, to boot—expectations for your next work are bound to be excessively high. Oh, and when that last book was a weird and wonderful mega-seller like Middlesex, well, that’s the dilemma for Jeffrey Eugenides. What do you do for an encore?
Probably the smartest thing for any writer to do under these daunting circumstances is to go in a very different direction, and with The Marriage Plot, Eugenides does just that. Less epic in proportion than Middlesex, and far more conventional in narrative, this much-anticipated novel uses the traditional device of a love triangle to explore questions of religion, identity, mental illness and, of course, love. Its title is a play on the term often applied to 19th-century Regency and Victorian novels (by the likes of Austen, the Brontës and Mrs. Gaskell) that center on the attainment of a suitable marriage.
Because he borrows peripheral details from his own life for his fiction, it might seem that Eugenides is a writer of thinly veiled autobiography, but he assures readers that The Marriage Plot is an invention. “I’ve had to pare down the autobiography in order to find the fiction,” he confessed to his editor Jonathan Galassi in an interview on FSG’s Work in Progress blog. “Autobiography is a largely fraudulent exercise. People don’t understand their lives or what happened to them; they only think they do. . . . Autobiography (or life) is artless.”
Still, in some ways it seems hard to separate one of The Marriage Plot’s central characters from his creator. Like Eugenides, Mitchell Grammaticus is a Greek-American from Detroit who graduates from Brown University in 1982. Like the author, Mitchell spends some time in Calcutta, working as an orderly at Mother Teresa’s Home for Dying Destitutes (this section of the novel was excerpted in the New Yorker’s summer fiction issue under the title “Asleep in the Lord”). In an interview with the New Yorker, Eugenides conceded that this part of the book is the most autobiographical thing he has ever published, while holding fast to the assertion that, “Almost everything I’ve ever written, and especially Middlesex, is made up.”
The pivot on whom The Marriage Plot revolves is Madeleine Hanna, a newly minted English major who, alas, like many English majors, finds herself cast into post-college life without a practical rudder to help her navigate the real world. Madeleine and Mitchell have been close friends since the beginning of freshman year and, as is so often the case in these collegiate pairings, Mitchell is madly in love with Madeleine, but she does not share his feelings and prefers to remain “just friends.” Their inevitable schism is painful, especially for Mitchell, who continues to pine for what might have been. Madeleine, though, has turned her full attention to Leonard Bankhead, a student in her semiotics seminar who is brilliant, moody and widely reputed to be oversexed.
Madeleine and Leonard fall intensely in love in a kind of hyper-intellectualized, collegiate way (they share a passion for the arcane lit-crit of Roland Barthes). What Madeleine doesn’t realize at first, though, is that Leonard’s charismatic brilliance (and bedroom stamina) can be attributed to his manic depression. When she breaks off their relationship, Leonard spirals down into madness. With a foreboding naïveté, Madeleine skips her graduation ceremony to race to his side in the psych ward. Reunited, they become the doomed lovers of the piece, and like their counterparts in 19th-century fiction, wedded to their tragedy. Mitchell, meanwhile, sets off for a year in Europe and India, intent on forgetting Madeleine while fulfilling a spiritual quest.
The novel deals with issues that obsess young intellectuals—the nature of love, religious truths, the meaning of life—which would explain why the 51-year-old Eugenides has chosen to set it among college students. “To me, college doesn’t seem that long ago,” he told the New Yorker. “It wasn’t hard to remember the music we listened to or the films we watched, or the way I felt back then. Much of the novel is written from the point of view of a young woman graduating from college. So, as with any book, it was more of a labor of imagination than recollection.”
It makes perfect sense that this story of intense love originates on campus, because for many, the university years are marked by a geographical and emotional intimacy unmatched in the outside world. Eugenides does a terrific job capturing a certain kind of college experience during a distinct era, and for those of us who shared that experience, there is instant recognition. A convincing novel can capture an age and cement it in memory, and The Marriage Plot does so, achieving something halfway between amusement and nostalgia.
By borrowing both title and conceit from the Victorian marriage plot novel as the basis for his own, Eugenides dares to make a bold literary statement. The seminal novels of the 19th century, even those that highlight the domestic, are predominately about society rather than the individual. The Marriage Plot, though, has narrower concerns, focusing as it does on three characters whose dilemmas are based in decidedly late 20th-century solipsism. Madeleine, most of all, remains an enigma—a highly intelligent, fortunate rich girl, who casts aside everything her education has taught her to enter what she herself disdainfully calls a “Stage One” marriage (“traditional people who marry their college sweethearts, usually the summer after graduation”). It is no wonder disaster looms. All three of the characters, though, are well drawn and pertinent, advancing the plot equally through action and inaction, and Eugenides takes us deep inside the hearts and minds (really inseparable here) of this trio of intelligent young people in order to dissect some basic truths about the unpredictable nature of love.
A gifted writer, Eugenides does so much well. He has a great talent for zeroing in on the perfect delineating detail—he describes Madeleine’s well-bred WASP mother, for instance, as “all hairdo and handbag”—and the intelligent, self-deprecating humor that percolates beneath the characters’ adolescent angst endears them to us, despite their lapses into self-indulgence.
Perhaps the greatest strength in the novel is Eugenides’ depiction of Leonard’s manic depression. Readers are convincingly led though the trenches with him as he repeatedly relapses and rebounds. Whereas Leonard may not be the easiest character to like (the blogosphere is abuzz with rumors that he is based on the late writer David Foster Wallace), Eugenides helps clarify his misunderstood affliction with compassion and insight.
It will be interesting to see if Eugenides’ fans embrace The Marriage Plot with the same fervor they showed for Middlesex (which has sold more than 3 million copies). It is certainly an ambitious novel and, in the end, after some woolgathering, its exploration of the vagaries and frailties of the human heart wins the day. Whatever critics and readers say, don’t expect a reaction from the famously circumspect writer himself. “If you want to write fiction, you have to be congenitally deaf to readerly murmurs about your character,” Eugenides told the New Yorker. “The trick to fiction-writing is to get the reader to believe what you’ve written. The greater your success at that, the more you deform yourself in certain literal minds.”