The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.
This book is: A book about college and relationships.
Other elements: Some degree of bildungsroman, life with manic depression/life with a manic depressive, how your parents affect who you are, the role of religion in a modern world, unrequited love.
Read it: If you are interested in early prescription treatments for manic depression, if you miss college, if you sympathize with characters having religious crises.
Overall rating: 7.2/10
My feelings about this book are complex. First and foremost, it was a disappointment. But I don’t think that’s the book’s fault, I think it’s mine. Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is one of my favorite books of all time, and I had high expectations for The Marriage Plot.
The writing was exceptional, as it always is with Eugenides. But I failed to feel any emotional connection with – or even strong interest in – two of the three main characters. The college scenes occasionally verged on trite (the main character belting her Betsey Johnson dress, wishing for coffee to dull her hangover…). And I didn’t like the title. I felt that it was too on-the-nose and it didn’t turn out to mean anything.
Very mild spoilers from this point on.
The main characters:
Pretty Madeline, a girl from a rich family who plays tennis, an idealistic English major of above-average intelligence who is universally admired for her looks. She works to please her parents, her teachers, the men in her life. Her problems are usually solved by other people. I don’t know about you, but I knew several people exactly like this in college. I didn’t like those girls then and I don’t like this girl now.
Leonard, the strong, popular, man-boy with the lonely heart who tries to solve his depression with women. Also a character I recognize from college, but a more complex one. He grew on me as the story progressed, but he still didn’t grab me.
The third main character – a boy named Mitchell Grammaticus – was wonderful. For me, the story was about him, even though Madeline and Leonard have more page time. Mitchell is in love with Madeline and has been for years, but it doesn’t prevent him from also living his life. He graduates college with no particular direction and a burgeoning interest in Christianity, which scares and confuses him. He takes off traveling, goes through Europe and ends up inIndia volunteering for Mother Teresa, while exploring the forms that religious observation take in different countries and picking up the parts that strike a chord with him. It sounds trite, but it’s fascinating, thanks to Mitchell’s very human point of view.
The story revolves around Madeline. The two boys are both in love with her and she defines their lives. Leonard finally manages some personal growth near the end, with a heroic act for Madeline’s benefit. Mitchell, because Madeline does not choose him, is free to be interesting the whole way through the novel and then experiences major personal growth when he has an epiphany about their relationship shortly before the end.
Madeline remains the same the whole time, but I think her mediocrity might be part of the point of the book. She’s the scenery around which the two male main characters live their lives; she’s not remarkable on her own, and that’s part of the tragedy of Leonard and the strength of Mitchell.
If the reader was supposed to love Madeline also, the author failed. If the reader was supposed to marvel at the bittersweet fact that the love of such a flat, mediocre individual could completely alter the lives of two much more interesting individuals, this book is a resounding success.
As I said, my thoughts about this book are complex. My main criticism is that The Marriage Plot failed to forge the kind of strong, emotional connection to the characters that I felt with Middlesex. But that’s hard to do.