"Brown University, 1982. Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English student and
incurable romantic, is writing her thesis on Jane Austen and George
Eliot – authors of the great marriage plots. As Madeleine studies the
age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two
very different men, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead,
brilliant scientist and charismatic loner, attracts Madeleine with an
intensity that she seems powerless to resist. Meanwhile her old friend
Mitchell Grammaticus, a theology student searching for some kind of
truth in life, is certain of at least one thing – that he and Madeleine
are destined to be together. But as all three leave college, they will have to figure out how they want their own marriage plot to end."
Satire of the university campus is common, particularly in the novels of David Lodge. However, in The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides brings the notion of the college satire to an American stage, featuring just about every student stereotype going: the romantic literature student, the depressive outsider, the hippy, and the wealthy helicopterish parents. However, cramming the story with these clichéd characters is not the story's downfall but in fact the recipe for its success, with the reader being left to dangle tantalisingly to discover the true meaning of the novel's title only towards the end of the tale.
Eugenides' slow-burning method of writing novels pays off in this latest title, published in 2011, with every detail being so carefully crafted that it is virtually impossible to find fault. It also provides something totally different to his previous works: the campus tragicomedy contrasts neatly with the horror of The Virgin Suicides and the morbidly fascinating sociological study that is Middlesex, proving that the writer is not just a one-trick pony but a wide-ranging perfectionist.
One thing that remains present across the spectrum of Eugenides' novels, however, is his typically caustic wit, combined here with the classic first-world drama of the problems of mostly privileged youths. Gently mocking of English studies and the type of students and faculty members that one tends to find at university, it's 'funny because it's true' and proves immanently readable. Incongruous motifs contribute positively to the comedy, meaning that the female protagonist's occasionally incomprehensible behaviour is, by and large, forgivable.
The development of Madeleine's love for Leonard is at times slow and unrealistic, but by the end of the novel, the detailed description of Leonard's condition makes us more understanding, and we are completely convinced by their relationship. In describing their union, too, Eugenides possibly gently satirises the unsuitable relationships that frequently evolve in the type of novels that Madeleine enjoys studying, and thus makes a subtle ongoing joke about certain aspects of literature itself - and hence, too, his own construction of the Leonard - Madeleine - Mitchell love triangle (not to mention the Mitchell - Larry - Claire subplot, or the romantic troubles experienced by Madeleine's sister Ally).
In short, Eugenides' latest tome is a success, with a happy ending tinged with melancholy still managing to leave the reader satisfied. It also leaves the door wide open for a sequel, but one suspects that this is not Eugenides' style. His ability to make us truly empathise with aspects of his characters' situations makes for what can be an intense experience, and for that reason, it makes sense to close the door on them completely, in order to allow their impact on readers to fully resonate. His collection of short stories is strongly-awaited, particularly to see what new angle and approach he will come up with next.
As a teacher, blogger, freelance translator, sometime student of Italian, onetime NaNoWriMo contestant and generally obsessive reader and writer, I think it's safe to say that language is my life. My side interests include documentaries, not tidying, and Double Stuf Oreos.