Review written by Rachel Mann
Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot explores the interwoven lives of three college friends in their first year out of Brown University, in the early ‘80s. Madeleine Hanna is a Ivy League English major, a lit elitist who revels in Victorian narrative and abstruse literary theory. Oh, how I recognized her! Perhaps because of my identification with the character as she navigates advanced literary seminars, I found the first section of the novel deeply satisfying and amusing. Eugenides weaves together Madeleine’s romantic obsessions with her literary ones, as evoked by her relationship with Barthes’ A Lovers Discourse, a book that both broadens and disrupts her love affair with Leonard Bankhead.
Leonard, a manic depressive biologist, is the focus of the next section of the book, which brings the two lovers to Cape Cod. There, he works as a research grudge while alternately recovering from and regressing towards a state of mental imbalance. His story alternates with that of Mitchell Grammaticus, the third point in the love triangle, who travels the world while obsessing in equal measure about Madeleine and organized religion. Though the book does include a marriage, there is nothing traditional about the placement or implication of that event; this is no comedy with wedding bells at the end.
Eugenides excels at the exploration of character, and this novel felt like a thoroughly enjoyable exercise in revealing three intelligent people. If there is a flaw in the novel, it’s that despite the stimulating internal monologues, conversations, and letters shared by the protagonists, none of the three does much of great importance during the span of the story. The ending feels like a cop-out, as Leonard simply steps off stage. Madeleine and Mitchell are left to separate wanly, which is no surprise to the reader.