The Marriage Plot Book Review - Who Cares Anymore?

Here’s my book review of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. This novel has drawn more commentary on my blog than almost any other. And The Marriage Plot is masterful on many levels. At first I wasn't drawn to any of the three characters in the love triangle - Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell. Each seemed deeply flawed, and they are. There’s a shy man who wants to help starving children, a neurotic woman who has a big heart, and a brilliant biochemist who has serious mental problems.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Middlesex (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

This is a literary novel, in the best sense, and I was surprised to read some critics cramming it into the diminutive genre “campus novel.” That would be like classifying Pride and Prejudice as a rom com, which is not as irrelevant as it sounds. The marriage plot, you see, is the genre form of which that work is representative. Eugenides wants to know whether the marriage plot is dead as a meaningful literary form, now that marriage seems hardly worthy as the ultimate goal of youthful aspirations. He’s posing  the question: “Does a love story that ends in marriage have any relevance today?” Time was, back in Jane Austen’s nineteenth-century Britain, whether the heroine snagged the man of her dreams made all the difference. He would be handsome, tender, and – best of all – rich. Doesn’t sound too P. C. does it? But that’s essentially the plot of chick-lit novels like Sex and the City (which was and is, before all the TV hype, a book by Candace Bushnell).

Candace Bushnell's chick-lit novel is an homage to the marriage plot of Jane Austen's books (HBO / New Line)

Then there's the theme of semiotics. I studied with Roland Barthes (yes, I'm that old) and back then I don't think the term semiotics even existed. At least, I don't recall his ever having used it. But he talked incessantly about structuralism, that a novel is a long sentence spoken by its author, a literary construct waiting to be parsed. Understand, I didn't get any of this from him back then, just from what others, including Susan Sontag, have written about him since. His lesson plan was built around Balzac's short story “Sarrasine,” which is the engrossing tale of a man obsessed by an opera star who turns out to be both a castralto and the "kept woman" of a powerful priest. But why Barthes chose that story for his criticism totally escaped me at the time, and I can only surmise now what his intentions were.

Novelist Jeffrey Eugenides (Gasper Tringale)

But back to Eugenides. The characters meet in a semiotics class at Brown University, and the author gives a lot of detail about the subject and its impact on their personal thoughts. Semiotics claims, for example, that humans would not experience love as we have come to understand it unless we had read about it (or seen movies about it) first. There's a similar concept in Stendhal's The Red and the Black, in which the narrator comments that peasants in the French countryside cope with life less well than the sophisticated citizens of Paris, who have all read novels that give them models for how to act in society.

My favorite Eugenides short story is "Baster" which can be found in this audiobook collection (Random House Audio / Amazon)

Perhaps significantly, the character in this book who understands himself best is the one whose grasp on reality is most tenuous, because he has to work at staying sane. In his acknowledgements, Eugenides credits several experts and sources for genetic research (another theme), but he thanks no one for his extensive detailing of bipolar disorder and its treatment. So naturally I wonder how he came by this information, and at what personal cost. (An astute Goodreads commentator observed that Eugenides was a close personal friend of David Foster Wallace, a brilliant novelist who suffered from bipolar disorder and committed suicide.)

Eugenides thinks we all are flawed just as deeply in our unique ways and are none the lesser for it. Ultimately, this is a novel about perception, what we make of reality as it is happening to us, and our inability to make meaning of events in time to control their outcome. Things happen or they don't. Things work out or they don't. They mostly don't, and we move on.

Bad news for self-help gurus who are helping you make plans. Way to make God laugh.

Gerald Everett Jones is the author of Bonfire of the Vanderbilts (Gabriella Muttone Photography / LaPuerta Books)

Gerald Everett Jones hosts the Boychik Lit radio book reviews, available via podcast from iTunes and Feedburner. His humorous novels include Mr. Ballpoint about the consumer craze of the Pen Wars in 1945. His new novel about an art scandal in 1890s Paris is Bonfire of the Vanderbilts.

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