The Marriage Plot takes its name from the narrative form that dominated novels for a span that stretched from 1811’s Sense And Sensibility to 1900’s Sister Carrie. In the opinion of one of the book’s supporting characters, a professor with 19th-century tastes, the novel hasn’t been the same since. “Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel,” he opines. “And divorce had undone it completely.” The Marriage Plot is Jeffrey Eugenides’ third novel—after The Virgin Suicides and the masterful Middlesex—so it’s doubtful he shares that sentiment. Instead, he treats it as a challenge, crafting his book around the matrimonial choices of an eligible young woman in a contemporary (well, early 1980s) American setting seemingly far removed from the fictional worlds of George Eliot and Emily Bronte. To ratchet up the degree of difficulty, Eugenides makes his protagonist, Madeleine, a graduating English major whose head’s been made to swim with postmodern literary theory. Is it possible to believe in love and to believe in love as an artificial construct?
Two suitors test the notion: Leonard, a brilliant, powerfully attractive, mentally unstable scientist, and Mitchell, a just-good-friends sort who, as college has progressed, has become increasingly drawn to religion, much to his own surprise. The two men are a study in contrasts, but there’s much more at work in the book than the issue of which she’ll choose. The Marriage Plot frequently subverts expectations on that front, creating suspense that it then dissolves in a single line. It’s as if Eugenides wants to steer readers away from Madeleine’s choices, and prioritize the lives of those involved in that choice, and the way those lives may be changed by being joined.
To that end, the book frequently shifts perspectives, following Mitchell on a pilgrimage to Europe, then to Calcutta, with the latter destination inspired by his admiration for Mother Theresa. Eugenides realizes each stop, and its effect on Mitchell’s developing consciousness, vividly and with great attention to detail. He lavishes just as much attention on the inner life of Leonard, whose manic depression and experiments in adjusting his own medication volleys him from one extreme to the other, dragging those around him with him. But Madeleine remains at the center of the novel, and not just as a prize to be won. She begins the novel driven by love to swoon and pout. She ends it wise with experience, having learned that, constructed or not, we live under the burden of love and must decide how, or whether, to carry its weight.