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Despite Reflexive Humor, Eugenides’s Tired ‘Plot’ Disappoints

'The Marriage Plot' by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

By Sofia E. Groopman, Crimson Staff Writer

“You don’t have to be so anxious about it,” my mother told me last spring during Junior Parents Weekend, after I had confessed to her in that I was beginning to believe that I would never love again, and that no one would ever love me, and also that I would never get married. “Maybe you will get married; maybe you won’t get married. It’s up to you,” my mother said. And then, in the way of mothers, she reminded me that I was a junior in college and that, comparatively speaking, I was very young. Yet it is sometimes difficult not to be anxious about marriage when people seem to be talking so much about it. With the acceptance of gay marriage slowly but surely making its way across the nation and with articles like Kate Bolick’s “All the Single Ladies”—which explores reasons for smart women to stay single—cropping up everywhere, young people today cannot seem to escape the cultural conversation about marriage qua institution.

Marriage as specter in the life of young people is the subject of Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel “The Marriage Plot.” Never showcasing a truly happy marriage, Eugenides’s novel specifically warns against the perils of marrying too young. The work, which is set in the early 1980s, follows three characters in their last semester as undergraduates at Brown University and into the following year. But while “The Marriage Plot” shows careful consideration for young love, its characters never escape their status as literary clichés. The novel lacks the formal sophistication of Eugenides’s debut, “The Virgin Suicides,” which was narrated in the first person plural, nor is the subject matter as thought-provoking as his second novel “Middlesex,” which explored the life of a hermaphrodite. Instead he focuses on the difficulties of being a young intellectual in love.

Despite Reflexive Humor, Eugenides’s Tired ‘Plot’ Disappoints

The heroine Madeleine Hanna, painfully bien élevé in the New England fashion, is writing her undergraduate thesis on the marriage plot in 19th-century American and British literature. In her final semester, she takes an upper-level seminar in semiotics and it is there that she meets Leonard Bankhead, a troubled young man from Portland with whom she falls in love. They embark on a tumultuous relationship and ultimately move to Cape Cod together after they graduate. Much of their story revolves around Leonard’s manic depression and Madeleine’s desire to “save” and to care for him, a choice that from the beginning seems destined to fail. All the while, Mitchell Grammaticus, one of Madeleine’s first friends at Brown, lingers in the background, in love with her and long suffering. Mitchell is “the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy she should fall in love with and marry.” Of course, Madeleine has very little interest in him. Spurned by Madeleine and desperate for authentic experience, Mitchell decides to travel in Europe and India with a friend. During his journey, Mitchell, a religion major in college, becomes increasingly fascinated by the religious practices he encounters. Eugenides interweaves Mitchell’s experience abroad with Madeleine’s and Leonard’s in Cape Cod, but also relies heavily on flashbacks to the trio’s childhoods and college days.

“The Marriage Plot” does convey fairly accurately what it is to be a young woman of around college age struggling to understand how to navigate romantic relationships. For example, a few weeks after Leonard and Madeleine have broken up for the first time, Madeleine’s roommates insist that she attend a party with them. At the party, she runs into another student from her semiotics class and ultimately goes home with him. Eugenides writes: “It wasn’t clear to Madeleine what she was seeking when she pulled Thurston’s underpants down. She stood apart from the person doing this.” She then proceeds to perform oral sex on him, with the continued feeling that she is not present during the act. While the notion that a wounded college girl might try to quash her emotions with liquor and casual sex is not particularly original, there is poignancy and sensitivity in Eugenides’ description. “Her mouth just wasn’t the organ nature had designed for this function. She felt orally overextended, like a dental patient waiting for a cast to dry.” Through this heartbreaking combination of alienation and humorous reflexivity, Eugenides sketches a painfully true portrait of a young woman working through the problem of what it means to be a sexual creature.

There is a similarly touching melancholy in the way Madeleine tries to understand her relationship with Leonard through her newfound knowledge of semiotics: “it was during this period that Madeleine fully understood how the lover’s discourse was of an extreme solitude. The solitude was extreme because it wasn’t physical. It was extreme because you felt in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, the most solitary of places.”

However, while this is a particularly elegant portrayal of Madeleine’s desire to be loved and its interaction with her academic interests, Eugenides does not seem to think deeply about his own signifiers, and at times his reliance on stereotypes detracts from the novel’s originality. He writes: “The university’s ‘British and American Literature Course Catalog’ was, for Madeleine, what its Bergdorf equivalent was for her roommates.” Despite a degree of superficial irony here, the characters of “The Marriage Plot” never transcend their origins as well-established literary types. Madeleine is a sexy, bookish WASP; Leonard a brooding, disturbed young man; Mitchell a wandering spirit. The portrayal of Mitchell is the most annoying: he journeys to India to find himself, but has to come back to Madeleine in order to really change. The novel is self-conscious about this problem, and Eugenides seems to suggest that these characters are supposed to be types. Yet that does not make his clichés of class any more interesting. In this vein, the fact that Eugenides is a middle-aged man writing about what it means to be a college woman is somewhat problematic. His heavy reliance on stereotypes to develop Madeleine’s thoughts and personality seems to suggest an implicit sexism.

Despite these issues, ”The Marriage Plot” is rescued by its humorous sensitivity. It is full of moments that any current or former humanities major will enjoy. “Who’s your father?” one of Madeleine’s love interests asks her. “Is it Virginia Woolf? Is it Sontag?” When Madeleine responds that her real father is her father, her boyfriend responds: “Then you have to kill him.” When she in turn asks him who his father is, he says: “Godard.” One can’t help but wonder, though, if writing this essentially classical novel about the problem of being young and in love was Eugenides’s way of killing his own literary fathers.

—Staff writer Sofia E. Groopman can be reached at segroopm@fas.harvard.edu.

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