The Marriage Plot

By Michael L. Umbricht / Ladd Observatory, Brown University

(by Jeffrey Eugenides)

Another novel written by a man with a sensationally marvellously drop-dead gorgeous female protagonist. Madeleine is a well-to-do beauty in her early twenties (a little bit like Katherine Hepburn, a lot like Candice Bergen) graduating from Ivy League Brown University in Rhode Island. Madeleine’s soppy friend, Mitchell, is in love with her but Madeleine falls for David Foster Wallace look-alike Leonard Bankhead. They meet in a semiotics class, which gives Eugenides the opportunity to lecture the reader about literary theory, which he knows a lot about.

Madeleine doesn’t seem to notice that the only love her beau has is for his mental illness, which he coddles and adores, while Madeleine coddles and adores Leonard, for reasons which her family and the reader fail to appreciate. The best part of the book is a long exegesis on Leonard’s illness and the horrors of his medication. This gives Eugenides the opportunity to lecture the reader about manic depression, which he knows a lot about.

Mitchell goes to India where he dithers about at Mother Teresa’s mission, which gives Eugenides the opportunity to lecture the reader about  spirituality, which he knows a lot about. The story zig-zags back and forwards in time and between the three main characters’ perceptions. Because Madeleine is a cipher, Mitchell is a simp, and Leonard is busy engaging with his navel, the result is that the same events are re-run from rather flat and dull points of view. The outcome of the triangular arrangement is easily guessed.

The writing is workmanlike, sometimes psychologically interesting but never profound nor absorbing. It is also clumsy and disappointing –

Characters always enter just at the telling part of their conversation. Madeleine is waiting for other visitors to leave, so that she can visit Leonard in hospital –

“After twenty long minutes, the elevator doors opened and two young white guys got off.  Reassuringly, both were male.  One guy was tall with B-52 hair, the other short, wearing a T-shirt with the famous photograph of Einstein sticking out his tongue.

‘He seemed good to me,’ the first guy said.  “He seemed better.”

“That was better?  Jesus, I need a cigarette.”

We are rather heavy-handedly told what to think at all times. Madeleine’s family is rich and caring and sort of funny like Salinger’s Glass family –

“Soon company arrived.  A mellow-voiced cousin named Doats, wearing tartan pants, his wife, Dinky, a frosted blonde with late-de Kooning teeth , and their young children and fat setter, Nap.

Madeleine got down on her knees to greet Nap, ruffling his fur and hugging him.

“Nap’s gotten so fat,” she said.

“You know what I think it is?” Doats said.  “It’s because he’s fixed. Nap’s a eunuch, and eunuchs were always famously plump, weren’t they?”

Madeleine’s patrician mummy (Phyllida) says things like, “well, I’m, I’m – I just don’t know what to say!”

Leonard’s family is not rich, caring or funny at all –

“If you grew up in a house where you weren’t loved, you didn’t know there was an alternative. If you grew up with emotionally stunted parents, who were unhappy in their marriage and prone to visit that unhappiness on their children, you didn’t know they were doing this. It was just your life. If you had an accident, at the age of four, when you were supposed to be a big boy, and were later served a plate of feces at the dinner table – if you were told to eat it because you liked it, didn’t you, you must like it or you wouldn’t have so many accidents – you didn’t know that this wasn’t happening in the other houses in your neighborhood. If your father left your family, and disappeared, never to return, and your mother seemed to resent you, as you grew older, for being the same sex as your father, you had no one to turn to.”

Leonard’s mother (Rita) drinks. Worse still, she didn’t teach her son that vichyssoise is served cold.

There are some clangers. “Kiwi” travellers carrying jars of Vegemite?  An annulment being granted in Massachusetts on the ground of one party’s mental illness?  Although to give Eugenides the benefit of the doubt, perhaps these were his characters’ misunderstandings.

The Marriage Plot is not even an interesting “coming of age” story about flawed characters and youthful follies. There is no “marriage plot” in the sense of Austen or the other Victorian/Regency writers read by Madeleine.  We just don’t care. However if you are nostalgic for Brown (which Eugenides knows a lot about), interested in the reproductive processes of yeast (which Eugenides knows a lot about) or admire Roland Barthes (about whom Eugenidis knows a lot), you’ll love it.


1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Michael Reid Perry

    February 14, 2017

    Looks like one to shy away from. Any Eugenides you'd recommend?

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