Jeffrey Eugenides has too much fun with The Marriage Plot, a smart, sly gloss of literary theory that's populated by flesh-and-blood characters, a deconstruction of the love story that is a love story, a roman a clef that opens the door to a wider world.
The book's title refers not to some connubial conspiracy but to the traditional novel, the "marriage plot" being the backbone of many great fictional works of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries by Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Wharton, James and more.
The marriage plot usually wasn't about marriage itself but about finding an appropriate spouse — such novels don't begin with a wedding but end with one — and that plot was a sturdy armature on which to build a novel about, say, social class or coming of age and dress it up in the mores and obsessions of a particular time and place.
And that's just what Eugenides does in The Marriage Plot, despite the fact that in its very first chapter a literature professor at Brown University declares that "the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. . . . Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely."
Eugenides opens his novel in 1982, with the country deep in a recession and struggling with 9.5 percent unemployment, a sign that money may have a role to play. He starts with a staple of the marriage plot, a romantic triangle, but reverses the gender roles. Jane Austen opens Pride and Prejudice thus: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." And with that Elizabeth Bennet's jockeying to become Mr. Darcy's dependent begins.
In The Marriage Plot, the female member of the triangle, Madeleine Hanna, has her own good fortune, thank you. She is not only bright and beautiful but privileged — her father is a retired college president — and reasonably talented enough to support herself. The novel opens on the day of her graduation from Brown, and Madeleine is as independent and well versed in feminist theory as any educated woman of her generation.
That does not prevent her from waking with a brutal hangover, incurred during mourning for her breakup with the Heathcliff of the piece, Leonard Bankhead. The two meet in a semiotics seminar, a tart little irony given that semiotics is part of the postmodern and poststructuralist movement of the 20th century that (to some degree) displaced traditional literary structures like the marriage plot.
Madeleine is an old-school English major for the simplest of reasons — she adores books — but she's giving semiotics a whirl as the flavor of the month. Leonard is not an English major at all; he's a scientist, and a staggeringly brilliant one, slumming in semiotics because of his interest in philosophy. He has that Byronic air — mad, bad and dangerous to know — and, like Byron, a crippling problem.
The second suitor for Madeleine's favors is Mitchell Grammaticus, her close friend from early in their college careers. By graduation, she is not speaking to him, although she knows he is "the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy she should fall in love with and marry." Not that her chill deters him; Mitchell can apply his textual criticism skills to a Dear John letter from her and turn it into an invitation, at least in his own mind.
Mitchell becomes a religious studies major after he's galvanized by reading William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience. Like a character in some novel by William's brother Henry James, Mitchell will respond to Madeleine's choice of Leonard over him by touring Europe and Asia, an American in search of genuine experience, although he's scared to death of it at home.
That trip lands him in Calcutta, working as a volunteer for Mother Teresa, and that brings us to the book's many references to the author and his peers. Eugenides, like Mitchell, worked for Mother Teresa, is a Greek-American from Detroit and went to Brown. Leonard is a ringer for the late novelist David Foster Wallace, from the bandanna tied around his long dark mane to his bipolar disorder, which Eugenides depicts with unsettling realism.
Although they didn't go to college together, Eugenides and Wallace corresponded early in their writing careers. Eugenides' fiction has tended toward the traditional realistic novel while Wallace's was the epitome of self-referential postmodernism, but the two remained friendly until Wallace's suicide in 2008. You can read an exhaustive account of their relationship on New York magazine's website — but you don't need to in order to enjoy The Marriage Plot.
But say Mitchell and Leonard do represent Eugenides and Wallace — then who is Madeleine? Maybe something she thinks about her semiotics class is a clue:
"She wasn't all that interested, as a reader, in the reader. She was still partial to that increasingly eclipsed entity: the writer. Madeleine had a feeling that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature. They wanted to demote the author. . . . Whereas Madeleine was perfectly happy with the idea of genius. She wanted a book to take her places she couldn't get to herself."
Funny, moving, insightful, generous and possessed of one of the most surprising and satisfying endings I've come across in many a volume, The Marriage Plot wants you, dear reader.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.