The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides
So, here’s the thing about reviewing The Marriage Plot: it does not matter what I, or anyone else, says about it. If you are the type of person who would want to read The Marriage Plot you will read it, regardless of what I say. Likewise, if you are the type of person who is uninterested in The Marriage Plot, nothing I will say will induce you to pick it up. This is perhaps as it should be, because at it’s most basic The Marriage Plot is profoundly unrelatable to anyone but the narrow swath of humanity to which it speaks to: the bookish, Victorian lit major from a small liberal arts college; and the bookish, philosophically inclined social outcast whose romantic relationships are limited to the unrequited. Basically, the only people who are likely to read and enjoy this book are people who have either read and enjoyed Middlesex (who may be disappointed), or people who read the dust jacket and felt some sort of kinship with one of the above characters: Madeleine (the former), or Mitchell (the latter). I leave out the other main character Leonard because I don’t think he would deign to read a novel, immersed in Barthes as he is.
The Marriage Plot is a pretty straight forward love-triangle story. Madeleine is a blank canvas of a college girl who has colored in her lines with Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. Mitchell is a college boy who tends to tread just this side of social acceptability and whose main pursuits are reading and pining. And then there is Leonard, the profoundly unlikable jagged third point of this love triangle, a supposedly charismatic manic-depressive who sustains himself on Derrida and Fellini. Let me back up for a moment: I went to film school for a brief period of time (before I realized that it’s incredibly difficult to get a job in film industry with a film degree since everyone, even industry professionals, hates film students), so Leonard is my kryptonite. My version of a Nam flashback, if you will. He’s unbearable in his need to be intellectually superior. He has distinct tastes, but enjoys absolutely nothing. In defense of the author, there is a reason for these character flaws: Leonard has a particularly profound case of manic-depression, a condition that is simply and eloquently explained (albeit with a standard Kierkegaard douche-reference) in this passage: “This is the deal with me: I’m ready to make the Kierkegaardian leap. My heart’s ready. My brain’s ready. But my legs won’t budge. I can say ‘Jump’ all day long. Nothing happens.” Nonetheless, the author’s attempts to make his charisma seem worth not only putting up with his condition but also his insufferable pretentions and occasional cruel indifference aren’t entirely successful. Part of this is because Eugenides treads too closely to the middle: in what was perhaps a desire to preserve the blank innocence of Madeleine, he doesn’t go far enough to characterize her relationship with Leonard as abusive (though it has some hallmarks), but neither does he romanticize it. Instead, he briefly immerses her in it and then whips her right back out as quickly as one might blanche vegetables, and though she goes through the motions of grief (or at least two of them – moving back in with her parents and crying often), one gets the feeling that she will emerge from what should have been a fairly traumatizing experience largely unscathed. And of course, Mitchell, the perpetually aggrieved always-a-friend-never-a-boyfriend , is waiting in the wings (briefly, the wings are located in Calcutta, a weirdly dissected section of the plot that seemed to belong in a different novel).
In fact, though for the most part I enjoyed reading the novel and it was certainly well-written, the only redeeming quality for me was in its ending (and here lie spoilers, so be forewarned). In the end, Madeleine chooses neither points of her love triangle in the end, defying the conventions of the novels she loves so much, and decides instead to try living life as a straight line. This would have been a much more affecting ending if Madeleine hadn’t been such a non-entity of a character in the first place. Even her ultimate decision isn’t her own, but is instead projected onto her by Mitchell (who is also somewhat of a non-entity, characterized only by his longing, both romantic and religious). And it’s a shame, because hidden very, very deeply beneath the arduous plot is the hint of a good message: there’s a passage toward the end about the difficulty of finding solitude in love, and that seed, when taken to it’s logical outgrowth, proves what I think might be the point of the novel (though I had to reach for it): lasting relationships don’t tend to be all-consuming. What you really want out of a lifelong partner is someone who will let you alone once in awhile. Two halves don’t make a whole, but two wholes can make a reasonably functional relationship (if they’re not assholes). The trouble is, no one in this book is a whole yet (though 33.3% of them are arguably indeed assholes). Which is why the ending, despite the winding road it takes to get there, is ultimately satisfying: instead of dooming his characters to never-ending fictional matrimony, Eugenides allows them to skate away from him, not yet fully formed, to build themselves into real people away from his authoritative pen. Even though I didn’t like any of them very much, you get the feeling that he looked at his characters with the kind of cringing affection one has when they stumble upon their high school poetry. And it’s that outlook, coupled with the satisfyingly unsatisfying ending, that makes it ultimately worth the read.