The Marriage Plot

By Jeffrey Eugenides

Should one review a book ones finds fairly ordinary? Sink more time into an already sunk cause? Or should one treat it as a writing exercise, putting into words why one finds one particular brand of college Americana so fascinating and another rather run-of-the-mill?

Ok, let me get to it. I was not bowled over by Eugenides’ latest work of fiction The Marriage Plot, an average effort at going where so many other impressive works have gone – the coming of age novel. Eugenides, as I found out during my foray into this much reviewed book, is a Pulitzer Prize winner for his previous work, Middlesex. And as someone trying to read more American fiction (I am not a big fan), I got myself his latest.

The setting is Ivy League Brown University in the Reagan-era eighties, and The Marriage Plot follows 3 of its students Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus and Leonard Bankhead through the first few years of their lives after they leave campus. Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard, in spite of some vestigial attraction to Mitchell, and Leonard, well, Leonard has problems. There is a lot of angst about attraction, about college sex, about love. And there is a lot of intellectual discussion based on college texts regarding religious studies (Mitchell’s area of current interest) and the DNA of yeast (Leonard’s specialisation). Madeleine’s interest, Victorian era women’s writing, seems pitifully under-represented.

Madeleine is a child of privilege, and all she really is interested in, intellectually, is reading Victorian era fiction. She should have appealed to me, given my predilection for the Brontes and Dickinson. But she is one of the most uninspiring heroines I have come across in a long time. She is pretty, intelligent, but so taken in by Leonard’s intellectualism, she fails to see him as he really is. And when she realises his problem, she is too committed and can’t help but get in deeper. Leonard is unlike-able completely, in spite of his medical issues. And that is really the failing of the book. A flawed man, he induces so little sympathy, one almost wants to accuse Eugenides of cruelty to the ill. Mitchell is the one character that inspires the most empathy. His experiments with religious affiliations and his foray into working with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta form for me, the more interesting parts of the book.

Reading The Marriage Plot, I am reminded of better books. Of Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, with its American campus experience. And of Franzen’s Freedom, with its depiction of a generation’s growing up. And the reminding only serves to show up Eugenides’ deficiencies all the more. Why is it set in the eighties? There is little of that era’s peculiarities in the book and its impact on plot and characterisation is very thin. Why does so much of the book get mired in yeast and semiotics, both pretty much irrelevant to anything else in the book? Why does Eugenides’ objective narrator voice not have half the resonance Franzen’s does?

Eugenides disappoints massively. I am not going to try him again soon.


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