Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
Rating: 4 stars
I immediately felt a connection to Madeleine, one of the main characters, because she is an English major who loves Jane Austen, Henry James, George Eliot, etc. However, there were times when I thought she was being a complete idiot.
The novel is set in the 1980s. Madeleine is just graduating from Brown University during the height of postmodernism. Her traditional values and her desire to be a Victorianist go against the grain of popular thinking. She finds herself in a semiotics class during her last year where she’s introduced to French theorists like Derrida and deconstruction. (I personally wasn’t a fan of deconstruction in college and I could appreciate her frustration with the people in her class–I’ve been there!)
In her semiotics class, Madeleine meets Leonard, an extremely handsome Biology major. Leonard violates a lot of Madeleine’s rules about boyfriends. For example, never date someone who doesn’t come from a good family. Madeleine was raised by a stable, wealthy family from New Jersey. Leonard comes from a broken home; both of his parents are alcoholics. Red flag!
But she can’t help but fall for him. He’s charming, gorgeous, smart, and…manic-depressive. Madeleine doesn’t find out he has a mental illness until after he’s hospitalized for depression. At this point they aren’t dating, because Leonard made fun of her for saying she loved him. He really is terrible for her, but she loves him blindly and he needs her. They just perpetuate this cycle of failing and reconciling.
While this whole fiasco is going on Mitchell, a friend of Madeleine’s, is completely in love
with her and depressed that she’s in love with Leonard. He thinks he is going to marry her someday, but Leonard is crushing all of his dreams. After graduation, he goes on a year-long journey to Europe and India hoping to see the world and put some distance between them. Unfortunately for him, Mitchell’s love for Madeleine is not quelled by separation.
I enjoyed Mitchell’s spiritual journey and found his arguments about religion intriguing. But I just didn’t like him that much. I wanted to root for him, because he seems to be the best fit for Madeleine (as far as a marriage partner), but he is just ineffective. His love for Madeleine seems to be rooted only in her good looks and marriageability, not her as a person.
Whereas Leonard is super interesting. I’m not saying I like Leonard either. But Leonard’s illness is incredibly well portrayed. Eugenides has an impressive grip on the disease and how it affects the mentally ill and their families and friends. Leonard’s voice is fascinating. We hear his back-story, what it’s like to be severely depressed, and what it’s like to be manic (which seems awesome and terrifying at the same time). I kind of hated him, sympathized with him, and wanted to slap some sense into him all at once.
The Marriage Plot jumps around in time and place and voice. It keeps you on your toes, but also tells you every side of the story. Middlesex was similar, you kind of felt like God at some points. You know people’s inner motivations for the good and bad things they do, which prevents you from judging them.
The characters go through catastrophic down-ward spirals and the whole time you’re like Stop! Look at your life, look at your choices. But you’re spiraling with them and feeling everything they feel and you’re like Oh, that’s completely nuts, but I get where you’re coming from. Maybe I didn’t like a lot of things that the characters did, but I understood why they did them. I think that’s the most impressive thing about Jeffrey Eugenides’s work.
I felt like I’d aged ten years reading The Marriage Plot. The ending is intense, but not in the that’s-super-crazy way, but more like that’s-the-most-grown-up thing-I’ve-seen-happen-in-this-book-so-far way. Growing up is scary and weird and sad in a lot of ways and The Marriage Plot captures that sentiment beautifully.