Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: book reviews, books, jeffrey eugenides, literary fiction, literature, the marriage plot
Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is a good college novel. It’s a good novel about a few kids their first year out of school, and it’s a good novel about relationships and about, duh, “the marriage plot.” But it’s a novel that suffers for what we might expect it to be; however good Eugenides’s latest may be, it doesn’t, it can’t, approach the quality of Middlesex. Unfair as it may be to compare the novels, it’s impossible to read The Marriage Plot (just as it’s impossible to read The Virgin Suicides) without Eugenides’s best novel in mind.
The Marriage Plot opens on graduation day for Madeleine, an English major who wrote her senior thesis on the marriage plot. Though Madeleine may first appear in the novel a hungover disaster, it’s soon clear that her life, and the life of this novel, is going to follow the same topic as her senior thesis. Which of her two (unsuitable) suitors is she going to end up with? What does a contemporary novel, taking marriage as its theme, look like? Her two suitors, Mitchell and Leonard, appear on the periphery of her life when the novel opens, but it’s evident that Madeleine is going to go for one of the two. Mitchell, a friend who’s been in love with Madeleine for years, appears about as well suited to her as her (momentarily) ex-boyfriend, the unstable, recovering Lothario, Leonard.
The biggest problem with Eugindes’s novel isn’t that it pales in comparison to Middlesex, but that Madeleine as a character appears a shadow compared to Leonard and Mitchell. Mitchell is by far the most sympathetic and best developed character of the novel, and it’s his post-graudation year-long “journey of self-discovery” that forms the most enjoyable part of the novel. And unlike Madeleine and Leonard, Mitchell seems most out-of-place at Brown University, the most in awe of this world of assumed success (not to mention expensive clothes and ice cream). Visiting a friend’s home for the first time, Mitchell is overwhelmed by the offerings of their kitchen; in some way, Mitchell feels like our guide to this world, the one member of Eugenides’s group of characters who doesn’t quite belong in Madeleine’s circle.
He still remembered the thrill of it: coming down to the kitchen one morning, the majestic Hudson visible in the window, and opening the freezer to see the small round tub of exotically named ice cream. Not a greedy half gallon, as they had at Mitchell’s house in Michigan, not cheap ice milk, not vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry but a flavor he had never dreamed of before, with a name as lyrical as the Berryman poems he was reading for his American poetry class: rum raisin. Ice cream that was also a drink! In a precious pint-size container. Six of these lined up next to six bags of dark French roast Zabar’s coffee. What was Zabar’s? How did you get there? What was lox? Why was it orange? Did the Pleshettes really eat fish for breakfast? Who was Diaghilev? What was a gouache, a pentimento, a rugelach? Please tell me, Mitchell’s face silently pleaded throughout his visits. He was in New York, the greatest city in the world. He wanted to learn everything, and Larry was the guy who could teach him. (133)
Leonard doesn’t quite fit into Madeleine’s upper-crust world either, but there’s a sense that he could, if not for his mental illness. Eugenides does an extraordinary job following Leonard over the course of the novel, his collapses and recoveries, his attempts to self-medicate and how his illness influences his feelings for Madeleine. Though Leonard is presented, from Mitchell’s view, as a womanizing asshole who doesn’t deserve Madeleine, he emerges later in the novel as a profoundly decent person who may not deserve Madeleine but recognizes his failure to be what he should be.
Madeleine, though, remains an enigma. We see her largely through the eyes of her two suitors, and when a section of the novel is told from her point of view, it’s not about her life as much as it is about her life with Leonard, or her lack of a life with Mitchell. Although Mitchell’s college memories of Madeleine are of someone determined not to marry, to find some independent course for her life, her actions point to a desire to define herself through her relationships. Madeleine may stay with Leonard during his bouts of illness, but she’s with him as much for duty as for love; it is, she seems to believe, what she is meant to do. That Eugenides based his entire novel around a character who only exists through the eyes of others is troubling, and points to some failure in the attempt to breathe new life into the marriage plot. He may take the plot on a different course at novel’s end, but The Marriage Plot remains a novel that views Madeleine as existing mostly for the benefit of the men surrounding her. And when Madeleine, at novel’s end, begins to take some more independent path – we think, we hope – it’s not because she realized the need to find her own way, but because Leonard and Mitchell each, independently, realized that Madeleine deserved to be on her own.
The Marriage Plot captures elements of the college experience, of intellectualizing our lives, of attempting to find ourselves through work and travel and relationships, more clearly and exactly than any other novel in recent memory. Where Eugenides fails is in having a main character who is nothing more than a canvas for men to project themselves onto. Madeleine exists not as a person in her own right, but as someone who offers to others a chance to better themselves, a chance for redemption. Eugenides may suggest that Madeleine’s bout with the marriage plot has led her to some understanding of the need for self-development and -discovery (following Mitchell’s path, in spirit if not in manner), but that remains only a suggestion, overshadowed by 400 pages of Madeleine living for everyone but herself.