The title of this, the third novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides, refers to the entanglements of three students and the plotting of Victorian romance novels. The Marriage Plot tells of the romantic, sexual, philosophical, religious and literary coming togethers/going aparts of a literature student Madeleine Hanna, scientist Leonard Bankhead and theology student Mitchell Grammaticus at Brown University in 1982 America. It is a tale of youthful assumptions, experimentations, dreams and disappointments. Perhaps it is a tale which will strike a chord with people of the same age as Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell, rather than those who are older.
None of the three main characters are particularly likeable and at times the book gets bogged down in literary theory, philosophy, science and religious theory. Leonard is brilliant but a manic depressive, something which colours the entire book. The portrayal of his illness is convincing and shows the knife edge of pharmaceutical dosage needed to maintain a healthy mental balance. Leonard yo-yo’s back and forth, coping and not coping, at times allowing his manic tendencies to win. Madeleine accuses him of liking being depressed all the time. Mitchell is the idealistic one who goes to India to work for Mother Theresa’s Calcutta hospice and confronts some unpalatable truths. In comparison, Madeleine seems rather spoiled. Both men dote on her however and this is the spine which holds the story together: who will Madeleine finally choose?
Eugenides describes mundane things so beautifully. “Outside, the temperature, which had remained cold through March, had shot up into the fifties. The resulting thaw was alarming in its suddenness, drainpipes and gutters dripping, sidewalks puddling, streets flooded, a constant sound of water rushing downhill.” Simple writing at its best. But at other times the writing feels manic and not just in Leonard’s sections. There is an authorial indulgence with many clever asides from the plot and characters. I soon learned to read these parts slightly out-of-focus, not worrying for example that I didn’t grasp Leonard’s sections on yeast or Mitchell’s constant references to Something Beautiful for God, Malcolm Muggeridge’s book about Mother Theresa. The last third of the book passed much quicker than the first two.
The Marriage Plot is ambitious, as Middlesex was, and rightly so, but is perhaps the inevitable ‘difficult’ book after such a huge success. This will not deter me from reading Eugenides again.
Read the first paragraph of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
If you like this, try these:-
‘If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go’ by Judy Chicurel
‘A Sudden Light’ by Garth Stein
‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx
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