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Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot: A Review

“Mitchell loved Madeleine, who loved Leonard Bankhead, who loved marking notches on his …” let’s say, belt. (The book may not always be PG, but the review needs to be.)

Jeffrey Eugenides’ third novel, The Marriage Plot is, at its heart, a story about a love triangle. Were it that simple, however, the Pulitzer prize-winning, bestselling novelist of Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides would probably not have needed nine years to create it.


MADELEINE of the 19th Century Novel

The novel’s title is not a trick, at least not regarding its central concern. Eugenides quotes from the epigraph to Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers, "The way of true love never works out, except at the end of an English novel," and in doing so puts a question in the reader’s mind the whole way through. How will this end? The math of a love triangle story is of course rather simple. Madeleine, the central figure of the novel in the sense that she is the one with most agency, will ultimately choose between these two men. It doesn’t take a master chess player to know the possibilities of how it might end, and yet even on this level Eugenides is rather clever. Better still, just as readers of Middlesex will remember that magnificent epic novel being about so much more than a hermaphrodite coming to terms with their identity, so too is the The Marriage Plot more than just a love story.

The narrative is mostly set in the early 1980s on the campus of Brown University (where Eugenides did his first degree, living in the same home,  as he recently told a crowd at the New Yorker Festival, where Eugenides shared the stage with another Pulitzer winner, Jhumpa Lahiri). Madeleine loves 19th century literature. Much of the novel’s first section is as concerned with her falling in love with the post-modern-defending and brilliant Leonard as with her own defense of her love for “old-fashioned” novels by authors like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. It is to Eugenides’ enormous credit that the literature classes and literary theory discussions never come across as dry, and while achieving the necessary complexity to engage those readers with multiple degrees in literature, are also comprehensible, even downright interesting, to us lay readers.

Then Eugenides takes his narrative up a level. For if Madeleine is compelling as a central figure, when the author suddenly shifts genders and perspectives and takes us into Leonard’s story, the novel hits its stride. Leonard is far and away the most intriguing and harrowing of the book’s characters.


For the rest of this article written for Chapters, Indigo visit Eugenides' The Marriage Plot Review