The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides
“Heartbreak is funny to everyone but the heartbroken.” That reflection comes early in Jeffrey Eugenides’ lively 2011 novel. The observation is made by Madeleine Hanna, one of three central characters, all of whom are students at Brown University. We meet them on the morning of graduation in 1982: liberal arts undergrads about to enter the post-grad world.
Eugenides, himself a graduate of Brown, won the Pulitzer Prize for his second novel, Middlesex, is also the author of a debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, a seventies set piece adapted for film by Sofia Coppola, and a 2017 story collection, Fresh Complaint.
Marriage as a Meta Plot Device
Of The Marriage Plot, the title refers to the literary device in which a story ends in matrimony, a happy plot reversal after protracted obstacles of (typically) misunderstanding, separation, and interlopers. It’s a trope that’s ingrained in western literature—think Austen, Eliot, the Bronte sisters—and a plot turn that, in the 20th century, has migrated to film, defined by those proverbial kisses at the final frame.
At the center of The Marriage Plot is the romantic triad of Madeleine, Mitchell Grammaticus, the wayward philosophy major, and Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant but troubled biology brainiac. The two suitors are temperamental opposites, and Madeleine’s love for Victoriana and nineteenth-century novels is a foil to them both. All three are romantics, but how and why they seek the intensity of romance makes the novel’s character-driven story a page-turner.
“In Madeleine’s face was a stupidity Mitchell had never seen before. It was the stupidity of all normal people. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and the beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.”
A Prose Stylist Who Entertains
Eugenides’ prose dances along doing amazing things, all while providing entertaining, intelligent reading that reveal deeper truths. As a stylist, Eugenides fills his prose to the brim. Plot, character, insight, books, love, loss, eighties music, and woven into it all is Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, that classic of eighties academia (I dug out my copy and took a sentimental journey through the highlighted sections). There is a richness to The Marriage Plot, not only in its meta-layering of books about books but of the gentle conceit that love, though well portrayed in books, is difficult to capture with any real clarity in life.