'The Marriage Plot': a love triangle turned on its head
A review of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel "The Marriage Plot," which tells the story of three struggling young people, set in the pre-Internet, pre-cellphone 1980s, caught in a love triangle. Eugenides will read Oct. 17 at the Seattle Public Library's Central Library downtown.
Special to The Seattle Times
Jeffrey EugenidesThe author of "The Marriage Plot" will read at 7 p.m. Oct. 17 in the Microsoft auditorium of the Seattle Public Library's downtown Central Library; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).
'The Marriage Plot'
by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pp., $28
The novelist Jeffrey Eugenides' timing could be characterized as deliberate: His work appears at precise nine-year intervals. "The Virgin Suicides" was his impressive 1993 debut (later made into a haunting, ethereal movie); "Middlesex," a Pulitzer Prize winner, followed in 2002. Now, right on time, comes "The Marriage Plot" — and it's worth the wait.
If you wanted to simplify "The Marriage Plot," you could call it a love story. Borrowing from some of the great novels of the past, it's a romantic triangle, set in the early 1980s and involving Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell, three just-graduated college students from Brown University starting out their young-adult lives. In a nutshell, Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard, and Leonard loves ... well, he thinks he loves Madeleine, but it's complicated, as such triangles tend to be.
"The way of true love never works out, except at the end of an English novel" is the Anthony Trollope quote that Madeleine uses in her senior thesis — she's an English major, finding safety and solace in orange-bound Penguin editions of classic novels — and it could serve as an epigraph for this book as well. (Nonetheless, Eugenides uses two other epigraphs — from La Rochefoucauld and, to zip us back into the time frame of the novel, the Talking Heads.) Love doesn't serve these three characters very well: Leonard struggles through the novel with mental illness; Mitchell with his conflicting religious beliefs and insistence that Madeleine is meant to be his; Madeleine with realizing that no matter how much she loves Leonard, she cannot make him "normal."
Eugenides, who himself graduated from Brown in 1983, re-creates the feel of that pre-Internet, pre-cellphone time with vivid detail: the Plasmatics T-shirts, the toe socks, the crinkly pale-blue aerogram letters to and from friends traveling in Europe, the way everyone in the English department seems to be reading but possibly not understanding Derrida. And his three young heroes, caught at that moment between youth and adulthood, between sexual freedom and romantic love, memorably flail, seeking a toehold in a world that doesn't seem to have a place for them. Literature is their touchstone; real life, so far, is not.
Eugenides, a master storyteller, has a remarkable way of twisting his narrative in a way that seems effortless; taking us backward and forward in time to fill in details. The book begins on graduation day, floats back to school days, forward again to the summer after graduation, back again to earlier in the summer, rocking back and forth in time and never quite anchored, yet always clear. And his descriptions are a constant pleasure: Mitchell's restaurant-boss's wife was "a large, disordered woman, like a child's drawing that didn't stay within the lines." Leonard, who hates the lithium prescribed to him yet appreciates how it distances him, describes how the drug keeps sadness at bay: "It was like squeezing a baggie full of water and feeling all the properties of the liquid without getting wet."
We know, as Madeleine knows, how classic novels with a standard marriage plot will end: with a wedding. "The Marriage Plot" ends in a way both unexpected yet completely true. For these characters, who don't live in Jane Austen's world, no simple resolution will do for them in the world. And yet you close this book with immense satisfaction — falling in love just a bit yourself, with a new kind of marriage plot.
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