Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Marriage Plot

This might be stating the obvious for some, but Jeffrey Eugenides can tell one heck of a story. His third and most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, though not without a few flaws, was every bit as compelling as his first two. This time around, Eugenides centers his story around Madeline, an English major at Brown in the early 1980's whose interest in traditional writers of marriage plot novels, like Austen and Gaskell, is at odds with the campus trend toward postmodern theorists like Derrida and Barthes. During her time at Brown and beyond, Madeline ends up in her own marriage plot of sorts, caught between the enigmatic and unstable biology major Leonard and the nerdy, spiritual theology major Mitchell.

The reviews I've seen of this novel have been quite mixed, with one of the main points of contention being the literary and academic references that are packed onto just about every page of the book. Naysayers seem to think that Eugenides overdoes it with these, making the book too obtuse and pedantic. I actually enjoyed all of this literary name dropping, even when they were names I wasn't all that familiar with. My initial problem had more to do with the way that academic theory was used as a means of kicking the characters into motion. Madeline meets Leonard when she takes a class on semiotics after discovering that it's what the "cool" kids on campus are into. A small part of me was impressed by the use of such an unconventional catalyst for action, but a larger part just had trouble buying it. Admittedly, I'm no expert in postmodern criticism, but having studied a few of these writers in college (with, for some reason, a very vivid memory of a class discussion about this guy), I have to roll my eyes a little at the idea that semiotics would be such a hot issue that it would be a deciding factor of popularity for college kids--even in the 1980's, even at an Ivy League school.

Despite this complaint, Eugenides's storytelling ability kept it from being the stumbling block it might have been in less skilled hands. I was so interested in seeing what happened next that soon enough I overcame my skepticism and found myself speeding through chapter after chapter, all the way to an ending that was both satisfying and not at all what I was expecting.


  1. I will have to give this another try. I read about 1/3 of it when it was released and just really disliked the characters. I didn't mind the literary references, though I thought the whole feel of the novel was a bit too smug for me.

    1. I actually had the same problem with the characters at first--particularly with Madeline during her Brown years. I'm not sure if they grew on me or if I just got used to their more annoying traits, but they stopped bothering me after a certain point.

  2. Thanks for this review, Miss B! I have been trying to decide whether or not to pick this one up (Middlesex was one of the best books I've probably ever read...but the mixed reviews for Plot halted me). I'm intrigued now:)

  3. I keep hearing great things and the literary name-dropping actually appeals to me, so I might have to add it to my to-read pile.



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