The novel opens in 1982, focusing on several characters who are graduating from Brown University, with flashbacks back to earlier in their college days, and follows them into young adulthood. Madeleine was brought up in a well-to-do, happy family in suburban New Jersey. Her father was the president of a small private university, and her mother was a Martha Stewart type who is always perfectly groomed and dressed. Madeleine is an English major, with a focus on Victorian novels. She is writing her senior thesis on the marriage plot so common in those old novels written by the likes of Jane Austen and George Eliot.
In Madeleine’s Semiotics class (check out the link – I had to look it up, too!), she meets an intriguing boy named Leonard Bankhead, a charismatic guy who Madeleine finds both intellectually and sexually thrilling, as the two start a relationship together. And there is Mitchell, Madeleine’s on-again, off-again friend who is actually in love with Madeleine. During his college years, Mitchell developed a fascination with mysticism and spirituality and changed his major to Religious Studies, all the while pining over – and sometimes clashing with – Madeleine.
As the novel opens on graduation day, a very hung-over Madeleine is trying to meet her obligations with her parents while hiding a secret about her relationship with Leonard, and enlisting Mitchell’s help, even though she hasn’t spoken to him in months, because her parents adore him. So, it’s a bit of a tangled web of relationships that propels the three main characters into their post-graduation, real-life world…and it gets even more complicated (as things tend to do in the real world).
True to its literary fiction genre, this is a story all about people and relationships – the process of finding yourself as a young adult and figuring out what you want to do with the rest of your life, the struggles and challenges of young love which can feel so compelling in the moment, and the way that things can change over time, as we mature. It asks the question: have classic love stories changed since the 18th and 19th centuries? Is the happy ending of Victorian novels still the same in modern times or is there a new kind of happy ending?
I really enjoyed the whole journey along with Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard. I found the first part of the novel intriguing because I also went to college in the 80’s, so I enjoyed the pop culture references and the whole college atmosphere of that time period. The one thing I found a bit off-putting, however, was a bit of literary snobbery that I found almost laughable. I don’t know about you, but my friends and I didn’t sit around in college having high-minded discussions of semiotics (which I’d never even heard of before!) or putting one another down for reading one literary icon over another. Maybe it’s because I didn’t go to an Ivy League school or because I was an engineering major and not a lit major…but I doubt it. I stuck with the novel through these parts (where the dialogue often went over my head and the literary references included books and authors I’d never heard of) because I could sense a bit of tongue-in-cheek attitude from the author – I think part of his point was that these very young adults were trying too hard to sound intellectual and high-minded. That was a part of their immaturity and growth process. Or maybe kids at Brown really sound like that!
Like I said at the beginning of this review, most people at my book discussion (4 of the 6) enjoyed the novel, and two of us who hadn’t finished it yet wanted to finish it after the discussion. However, two people said they couldn’t get through it (one was ready to give up at about page 100 and the other said she couldn’t get past page 2!). It seems to be the kind of book that people either love or hate.
All of those who liked the novel in our group admired Eugenides’ writing. Although some of his sentences are a bit long and convoluted, he also has a talent for writing about very mundane things in a way that makes you say, “Yes! That’s it! He’s said it perfectly.” One example is this line, thought by Mitchell during the graduation ceremony and probably felt by most of us at some point during our college experiences: “It was possible to feel superior to other people and like a misfit at the same time.” These kinds of That Is So True statements are sprinkled throughout the story.
So, if you are looking for a fast-paced quick read with lots of action, you should probably pass on this one. However, if you enjoy good literary fiction with insights into real life and real relationships and realistic characters who have plenty of depth, all wrapped up with clever , insightful writing, then The Marriage Plot is right up your alley! Now, I really want to read Middlesex.