I don’t often await a novel with as much anticipation as the latest from Jeffrey Eugenides. Both The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex drew me into worlds which were bizarre but utterly captivating, so I fully expected to be writing a rave review of The Marriage Plot. Well, it’s not going to happen.
It seems that some authors have the power to make me feel it’s a failing on my part if their latest offering doesn’t blow me away. It only applies if I’ve enjoyed their previous work, and those who spring to mind have a few other things in common. They are literary giants. They take years to produce a new book. They are 50 something. They are all male. I hated The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis: I liked but did not love Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (and The Corrections is one of my favourite novels).
The marriage plot of the title will be familiar to readers of Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James, which English Major Madeleine Hanna is studying. The novel charts her own experience of the love triangle with Leonard Bankhead, a depressed philosopher/biologist and Mitchell Grammaticus, a student of religious studies. The novel kicks off very promisingly on the day of their graduation from Brown University in 1982 but there’s clearly trouble ahead.
We are told: ‘Madeleine thought a writer should work harder writing a book than she did reading it.’ I agree. Although even the supremely erudite Eugenides (Professor of Creative Writing at the Lewis Center, Princeton) had to undertake some research (nobody’s an expert in literature, philosophy, semiotics, theology, biology and psychiatry, after all) his enjoyment of the subjects shines through. I would guess that he had fun writing this but reading it was very hard going in places. This is a novel about some extremely intelligent and thoughtful people. Insight into their intellectual preoccupations and spiritual beliefs is absolutely necessary to the exposition of character and why they think/act/feel they way they do, it’s just that for me there was far too much of this and instead of making them more real, it got in
the way. It’s not posturing on the part of the characters, because the majority of the clever stuff is internalised. We spend a lot of time inside their heads and in all three cases, it’s an intense and challenging place to be. Nor do I think it’s pretension on the part of the author, who has nothing to prove. (In the interviews and clips I’ve seen he’s very modest and down to earth). Yet in the first 30 pages alone, 41 writers/philosophers* and countless works are named. I studied French but unfortunately not Derrida’s Of Grammatology nor Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, both of which are referred to repeatedly (although of course I feel I should now). It’s a long book and the structure of five parts without chapter breaks is problematic, because the dense patches can seem interminable. My heart sank on turning the page to see inch upon inch of references that don’t mean anything to me, whereas it leapt when there was dialogue, action, description – anything else in fact.
Strangely, I’ve enjoyed The Marriage Plot more since finishing it and reflecting on it at one remove than I did reading it. It was only then that I realised I was really interested in the protagonists and what happened between them. I found Mitchell and Leonard more engaging than the earnest Madeleine (she reminds me of Emma in David Nicholls’ One Day which was hard to get over). The portrayal of college life and Mitchell’s travels (closely based on the author’s) were vivid and sometimes very amusing. The final section, where the extent of Leonard’s mental health problems is revealed, was masterfully handled. Eugenides uncovers with great sensitivity both the unpredictable torment of those suffering from ‘manic depression’ (now called bi-polar disorder) and the toll it takes on those who love them, and finally I found what I expect from Eugenides. His writing soars even as it plumbs the depths of despair. I felt for them. I almost felt I was them.
As in the best marriage plots, an accident of fate alters the course of events irreparably. At the end I had to keep reminding myself only around a year had passed and not decades. All the way through, Leonard and Madeleine seemed much older than 22 (Mitchell is more typical of that age group) especially when seen in the company of their more relaxed friends who are busy drinking, having sex, getting high and getting ahead. The ending worked, although it’s ironic given the gripe about the book being too self-consciously intellectual that the closing scene between Mitchell and Madeleine wouldn’t be out of place in a rom-com.
So I suppose this is the bit where I apologise for my ambivalence about The Marriage Plot. I’m glad I read it but for me it was all highs and lows.
That’s love for you.
*Mentioned in the first 30 pages: Wharton, Henry James, Dickens, Trollope, Jane Austen, Eliot, the Brontes, Levertov, Colette, Derrida, Eco, Barthes, Balzac, Cioran, Walser, Levi-Strauss, Handke, van Vechten, Hawthorne, Fielding, Thackeray, Longfellow, Fenimore Cooper, Marquand, Vogel, Dreiser, Updike, Lyotard, Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard, Cheever, de Sade, Blanchot, Saussure, Pynchon, Goethe, Kleist – of whom I have read a third at best.