The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

I first discovered Jeffrey Eugenides after seeing the film adaptation of his debut, The Virgin Suicides. I liked the film so much I read the book, and promptly fell more in love with the book than I was with the film. It is darkly poetic and had the tone and quality of magic realism without any actual magic in it and was incredibly tightly written. It feels longer and deeper than the page count suggests. When his second novel came out, the Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex I was surprised to discover it was a sprawling family epic. The books seemed so disparate and different from one another that I wondered for a long time what his third, The Marriage Plot, would be like. As it turns out it is also quite different from his previous novels.

At its simplest, The Marriage Plot is a book literally about the marriage plot. A girl, Madeleine, has two guys, Leonard and Mitchell, interested in her, and needs to choose between them. Being set in the 1980’s however adds a twist to the marriage plot of old. In the Victorian novels, marriage was an unbreakable vow and so who the heroin chose to marry had a greater significance and an absolute finality. This book is set in a time when divorce is legally and socially acceptable. The novel then seems to ask a simple question; with divorce, can the marriage plot still function within literature?

As a piece of literature exploring literary concepts the book often feels reflective and self-referential. Madeleine herself is a literature student exploring the marriage plot in Victorian novels. The two guys are also students, one in science, the other in religious studies, forming a complex triangle of academic disciplines. Leonard, the scientist, who also suffers from manic depression, has a kind of carefree pragmatism and Mitchell, the religious studies student, seems to be struggling with a crisis of faith. Both of these qualities do much to call into doubt the absolution of marriage.

As I was reading the book I started to form an opinion on whether or not the marriage plot could still work in literature. An opinion that was then echoed in the book itself.

A thing like that, once said, was not easily unsaid. It would be there from now on, whenever Leonard and Phyllida were in the same room.

This quote, taken slightly out of context admittedly, sums it up quite nicely. Divorce, and even annulment (which is discussed in the book), might be able to remove a marriage, but it can never erase the fact that the decision to marry was taken. Its like standing at a crossroads and choosing to go left. You can turn around and go back to the crossroads if you want to but you can never undo the fact that the first time around, you chose left. The point at which the heroine picks one suitor over another creates an unchangeable dynamic between the three of them. The rejected man must go and live his life and even if the marriage fails and ends in divorce he will have been irrevocably altered by the rejection. Divorce doesn’t just offer a second go to try all the options that were initially ignored, going back to the crossroads might lead to the discovery that some of those paths that weren’t taken are no longer there.

One of the things that I really appreciated about the book was that all three principal characters were given equal standing. Rather than a central female protagonist and two loosely defined male caricatures all three were explored sympathetically and given plenty of space. This is not a book about judging its male love interests and hoping that the woman makes the right choice, it is a book about the complexity of love.  The final page of the book is a brilliant, if slightly self-conscious, breaking of the fourth wall that talks about the insufficiency of a simplistic romantic conclusion.

As a ran of Roland Barthes there were enough references to him in the first half of the book to make me smile, and there was some stuff toward the end that really highlighted the quality of Eugenides research. I was very impressed by references to electrophoresis tanks and Rhone-Poulenc; sciency stuff that I knew about, as well as a worryingly familiar student at the start of the novel who was so pretentious he actually made me a little angry. Writing the words ‘not real skin’ on someones skin is lazy and obvious and something I might have thought was really, really clever fifteen years ago, which is, I suspect, the real reason it made a me a little angry.

So, in conclusion, another fine novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. May the next one take less than eight years to write.

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