Everyone has them: those friends or acquaintances whose life's peak, and especially whose romantic peak, was in their Ivy League college days. Get in a room with one of these people plus a bottle of wine, and you are in for a long night of recollections of days-of-our-lives relationship dramas that can only happen when people are very young, living away from home with access to parents' credit cards, and unburdened by anything so mundane as -- for example -- a job.
The experience of reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides is roughly the same as being trapped in a room with one of these people for an evening. It's entertaining because other people's train wreck romances often are, but I was hoping for more substance in a novel that is being hailed as a literary classic in the making.
Madeleine, the novel's "heroine" -- though the word accords her way too much power and agency -- early on contemplates nostalgia for the nineteenth century novels that followed "the marriage plot," and thus is the theme of this novel established. Centering around a college love triangle, The Marriage Plot contains familiar elements to anyone who reads: a beautiful female romantic object, a magnificently attractive male with a dark secret, and a more ordinary but brilliant male watching from the sidelines.
Yet even in the nineteenth century novels for which Madeleine yearns, women were more interesting and active than she is. Madeleine takes a passive role for most of the novel, allowing her love of Leonard to sweep her hither and yon, to the point of missing her own graduation. Her entire character arc consists of romantic deliberations, sex in various positions, and codependency. Meanwhile Mitchell, the man who cannot have her, goes on an archetypal Hero's Journey around the world to find himself, much in the way of college guys. And while it's clear that Leonard is meant to be the kind of mesmerizing character that everyone envies and wants to be, we know this because we are told it a great deal -- not because anything Leonard says or does is particularly fascinating in itself.
One thing is certain about these characters: the men do things like take jobs or explore the world, while the woman sits around, waits, and thinks about the men. If there were any doubt of this, Eugenides even at one point compares her to Penelope from Homer's Odyssey -- although Penelope, at least, had a plan.
Set in the eighties, the novel is at its best in its biting satirical send-up of the academic climate of the times. The prose in The Marriage Plot is leaden save for the comic moments, which can be devastating in their precision. Moments such as: "Semiotics was the form [Professor] Zipperstein's midlife crisis had taken ... Instead of leaving his wife, Zipperstein had left the English department. Instead of buying a sports car, he'd bought deconstruction."
But most of the novel is a beat-for-beat analysis of some very ordinary characters' prosaic emotions in response to banal events. Eugenides leaves no feeling or thought to the imagination, which has the effect of destroying any possibility of ambiguity, as well as stating the obvious. For example: "...Either Mitchell's love for Madeleine was pure and true and earthshakingly significant; or he was addicted to feeling forlorn, he liked being heartbroken, and the emotion he felt for Madeleine...was only a perverted form of self-love. Not love at all, in other words."
To be fair, this is the sort of painstaking self-analysis that most self-obsessed college students would routinely engage in. So then the question perhaps becomes, why should we care about these characters and their libidinous vacillations?
A question for which 400 pages do not ultimately provide an answer.