“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides is a novel about love and growing up set in the privileged world of US academia in the early eighties. The main plot concerns a love triangle involving two guys and a girl. Madeline Hanna, the girl at the apex of the love triangle, is the main focus of the novel and the majority of the novel is told from her standpoint. I think her sections are incredibly well written but I’d love the thoughts of a female reader, in case it is actually all a horribly male way of seeing through a young woman’s eyes. In love with Madeline (and the guy that we meet first) is Mitchell Grammaticus, an overly deep guy who is terribly concerned about whether he is doing the right thing in the world. He thinks that religious studies is for him but later finds that it is harder to live up to your ideals than you first imagine.
Meanwhile, Madeline falls in love with Leonard Bankhead, a biology major who is (unknown to Madeline) grappling with manic depression. When the story is told from his point of view, there is some really great writing about mental illness that is sensitive and heart-felt. It really gets to the nub of how difficult it is to seek treatment for depression, how easy it is for people around you to not notice the signs of feeling bad, how families sometimes unfortunately magnify hereditary problems simply because there was once no expression or explanation for these illness, and how selfish one can feel while being treated for supposedly just feeling bad.
Obviously, I won’t tell you who ends up with who, but you might be wrong footed by Madeline’s thesis on “the marriage plot” of the title. These are the plots in the novels by Austen and her contemporaries where after some strife and difficulty, the heroine marries someone and all the relationships in the novel are neatly tied off. This doesn’t really happen in this novel: its characters may borrow features from those plots but they are altogether more modern and as a result the ending is a little more modern and complicated, but it does end in the right way. (Note: Don’t do what yours truly did: read the last page – unusually the last page of the novel is the last page of the book, rare these days – and get all miffed at how you think it will resolve)
I liked this novel because it was actually quite a straightforward narrative about complex people living through an important and complicated time in each of their lives. I could certainly identify with and see myself in all three of the main characters. There is a thought that preoccupies you when you are that age: what is my place and where should I go? And I think that gets to the heart of all three main characters, and I think the response of seeking that place to be in books and travel is certainly one I recognise, along with the process of trying to forge an identity for yourself by becoming consumed in another person. Some reader reviews have called the book pretentious but I think it’s the characters in it that are pretentious – as you are never as pretentious in life as you are between about 19 and 24 years old. If you have some nostalgia for university days passed or for your own loves lost, I’d recommend this!