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.
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.