The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides – A Review

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

“In the days when success in life had depended on marriage and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later? How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? …Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t. You had to read historical fiction. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies. Afghani novels, Indian novels. You had to go, literarily speaking, back in time,” (22).

The above quote is great, because I suspect it reflects a tongue-in-cheek challenge that Jeffrey Eugenides put to himself when writing The Marriage Plot, a modern novel that revolves around marriage, but which faces the very plot difficulties mentioned above: gender equality and divorce—along with the giant elephant in this story’s fictional room: mental illness. In writing this tale, Eugenides shows that one need not go back in time to write a novel about marriage, for just as in the Austen canon, the main crux of this story revolves around the question of who will marry whom.

To construct the marriage plot of The Marriage Plot, Eugenides introduces to the reader three main characters—Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus—the three points of a classic love triangle: Mitchell loves Madeleine who loves Leonard who loves Madeleine who likes Mitchell. All three also attended the same school for undergraduate studies: Brown University. Like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, Madeleine is from an upper, middle class family, popular, pretty and smart. Also, like Elizabeth Bennet, Madeleine can be rather “blind” to the faults of the young men she is interested in. Unlike the more famous heroine, however, she lacks both a strong moral compass and wise friends who could have given her much needed advice. Is it any wonder then that she finds herself mixed up with two young men who, rather than forming mature partnerships with her, cause her a great deal of emotional stress?

To be fair to her, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus are both interesting, handsome, intelligent young men whose flaws are not so readily apparent. Leonard, whom she meets and bonds with in a semiotics course, is something of a maverick and scientific genius with a campus reputation for sexual prowess. In contrast, Mitchell is more like the cute boy-next-door who secretly pines for the girl he will never get if he doesn’t quit acting more like a brother than a suitor. Will Madeleine choose Leonard the wounded soul/psych patient whom she likens to Bertha Mason, the crazy woman in Jane Eyre (340) or will she choose Mitchell the Christian mystic-in-the-making?

There is more to both of these young men than their attraction to Madeleine, however, and it is really their inner lives that give the novel its fascinating flavor. Eugenides does an excellent job in exploring the relationship dynamics of loving someone with a mental illness, as when he writes, “The solitude was extreme because it wasn’t physical. It was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, that most solitary of places,” (64-65). He also paints a moving example of the type of dysfunctional family life and difficult childhood that can contribute to the development of such diseases, along with the arduousness of seeking treatment and therapy that may or may not bring results. Likewise, his depiction of Mitchell’s quest to find God, first through study, then charity work, is equally written with powerful credibility, particularly the scenes where Mitchell volunteers for the Missionaries of Charity in India. Both storylines are sure to conjure up empathy from the reader, forming the kind of bond between characters and audience that transforms a good story into a great read.

If The Marriage Plot is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially Austenites, it could be because drugs and sex are major details of the characters’ lives. Indeed, what could be more anti-Austen than a marriage proposal delivered only after the couple has had a rather aggressive bout of sex? It could be, too, that some will be unimpressed by the storyline, which does not involve a great deal of dramatic events and flips back and forth in time. Yet, for those interested in a love story with flawed characters that seem eerily similar to themselves or people they know—thoroughly modern, yet similar to the Regency and Victorian characters they love—then Eugenides’ superb writing style and narrative crafting is sure to satisfy.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2011)
Hardcover (416) pages
ISBN: 978-0374203054

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. In the fall of 2011, he will begin classes in the masters of writing and publishing program at DePaul University in Chicago, IL.  He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

© 2007 – 2011 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

8 thoughts on “The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides – A Review

  1. My initial impression is how did this book land here at Austenprose? The connection to “all things Austen” appears to be tenuous and contrived. Brother Paul, can you elaborate? Your review is tantalizingly descriptive and invites the prospective reader in. I’m especially curious about the religious overtones that are mentioned. As always, a well-crafted review of a book that looks difficult to fit into any category.

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    • Well, I think there are two answers to your question about why this book fits this website. One, perhaps superficial reason, is that Austen is referenced throughout The Marriage Plot. I didn’t mention it, but Madeleine Hanna, the female lead in the novel, is interested in Austen studies. She attends an Austen conference and makes friends there who are fellow Austen and Victorian enthusiasts.

      The deeper connection is the influence Austen’s marriage plots have on Eugenides construction of his own marriage plot novel. I was impressed by Eugenides’ efforts, since he wasn’t merely trying to replicate Austen story lines and characters in contemporary times, but instead showing how specifically the marriage plot itself, which Austen specialized in, was still relevant.

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  2. Thanks for your insightful review Br. Paul. I have been reading about this book for months and Jane Austen’s name is always associated with it. Glad to know the connections. The author is quite famous and acclaimed with a Pulitzer Prize no less. Sorry that this book was not more enjoyable for you, but it seems to have mixed reviews all around, so I’m not surprised. Thanks again.

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