Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

In a post-everything era where old-school classics are being turned into bizarre zombie love stories (Pride And Prejudice And Zombies anyone?) or chick-lit romantic romps (from Bridget Jones’ Diary to all those sexed-up Mr. Darcy books) it is remarkable that an unembellished story of a love triangle among Ivy League college kids can still hook 21st century readers. In The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides proves that the romantic marriage-based plots of long-ago Jane Austen novels are not dead, and certainly not undead. Instead, they’re very much alive, along with their old-fashioned and timeless question: whom shall she marry?

The Marriage Plot is told from the alternating points of view of three college students who meet at Brown University (Eugenides’ alma mater) in the late 70’s: Madeleine, a smart, WASPY English major, Mitchell, a soul-searching Religious Studies major, and Leonard, a tall, mercurial bad-boy. It’s a choice as old as time.

Madeleine is a fan of 19th century novels, and in the first scene of The Marriage Plot, Eugenides gives us an intimate peek at her college bookshelf: 

There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope. Along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot and the redoubtable Bronte sisters. 

But Madeleine isn’t just a bookworm. She ventures out to a toga party where she meets Mitchell, a nice, curly-haired boy who is “good with parents.” Mitchell joins Madeleine on a trip home for Thanksgiving and impresses her traditional suburban family with dazzling Scrabble performances and manly games of pool. Mitchell misses his chance to make a big romantic move but continues to pine for her, his secret dream girl.

By senior year, Madeleine begins to feel a bit dowdy and conventional about her taste in literature. She’s drawn to a radical new English seminar that is popular with the cool black t-shirt crowd. It is there that Madeleine meets Leonard, a tall, handsome tobacco-chewing biology and philosophy major, who despite a crazy Jack Nicholson look, gives Madeleine a “strange fairy-tale feeling, as if she were a princess sitting beside a gentle giant.” 

And if The Marriage Plot would pause there, like an episode of The Bachelorette, and poll the readers: “whom should she choose?” --we’d shout out our advice: “pick Leonard!” – “pick Mitchell!” Or maybe, if we’re young at heart and have succumbed to Twilight vampire hype, we’d buy a t-shirt for “Team Mitchell” or “Team Leonard.” Because for some reason (who knows why, maybe our brains are just hardwired for it) we still love these romantic dilemmas. But then, after some boozy book club debate about the merits of each bachelor, we would quickly, addictively return to The Marriage Plot where we left off.

The novel follows the trio’s coming-of-age as they graduate and move forward with their post-graduation plans. Mitchell leaves on a spiritual world tour, including a stint of volunteer work with Mother Teresa. Leonard snags a prestigious biology fellowship but struggles with bipolar disorder. Madeleine follows Leonard and tries to nurse him through his wild mood swings. When Leonard and Madeleine are isolated in a small apartment at his lab in Cape Cod, you just might be reminded of some of the early scenes from The Shining. Leonard is losing it.

You begin to wonder whether Madeleine should choose either Leonard or Mitchell. It is, after all, 1982, and Madeleine is applying to graduate programs in feminist Victorian studies. This was the era when bumper stickers read: “A Woman Needs A Man Like A Fish Needs A Bicycle.” Madeleine has a nice-enough family and an empty room back in New Jersey waiting for her, complete with cozy Madeline wallpaper, in case she needs a place to crash and regroup after graduation. What she needs is a good girlfriend intervention. She needs to blast her Sony Walkman with loud, rowdy, move-on-with-your-life-without-a-guy break-up songs. 

But alas, Madeleine is young and in love, and a bit like some of those characters in the sentimental 19th century novels, she’s in love with being in love. During an earlier break-up with Leonard, Madeleine tried to soothe herself with some of the new literary analysis she’s been studying:
If you used your head, if you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental, if you recognized that being “in love” was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny. Madeleine knew all that. The problem was, it didn’t work.
Ah yes, romance survives its scholarly deconstruction. The burning torch of the marriage plot is not so easily extinguished after all.

This trio’s tangled road to adulthood makes for an engaging story. The marriage plot is suspenseful - page-turningly so. We care about these characters; we’re invested in their future. And as they move forward with their lives, their bad 80’s fashion choices, their fairy-tale dreams and their youthful love triangle in the past, there is at least some good news. They don’t have to worry about vampires, zombies or The Bachelorette show for about 25 more years.

Come check out this book for yourself on The Bookstore's staff pick shelf. Available as a Google e-book on our website here for only $12.99. And come back to The Bookstore to take part in our informal poll: Team Leonard or Team Mitchell? Or maybe just Team Madeleine (a fish without a bicycle)?

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