Book review: The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides

Another audiobook, mostly listened to on the bus. This is literary fiction set in 1982, told from the alternating point of view of three freshly-graduated college students caught in a love triangle: English student Madeleine, biology student and manic depressive Leonard, and theology student Mitchell who’s sadly stuck in the friend zone. It is highlighted toward the beginning that Madeleine has been studying the ‘marriage plot’ as part of her thesis, and how this plot is generally most common in the 18th and 19th century, before mostly dying out except in historical fiction: this is Eugenides’s attempt to create a version in the modern era. (The fact that the story’s actually set in 1982 doesn’t make a huge impact; the audiobook has an interview with Eugenides at the end, where he points out that 1982 is largely the present day without cellphones and the like.)

The story itself functions well as a modern ‘marriage plot’, with factors like the characters still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, and Leonard’s manic depression, complicating matters and making it much more than a simple romance. That said, most of the relationship-based focus is on Madeleine and Leonard, because for most of the story, Mitchell is actually nowhere near them: he’s travelling across Europe and India. Madeleine is certainly in his thoughts a lot of the time, but the story suffers for some of these segments as it reads more like a travelogue – interesting enough, but I’m here for a story.

The focus is on character rather than story, however, and it’s mixed in that regard. Leonard is definitely the best-portrayed character; you definitely get into his head, his manic depression is described in painful detail, and you can understand why he does things even when you don’t agree with them. Madeleine, while still three-dimensional, is not quite (but almost) likeable or interesting enough for it to be understandable that she has two guys who both passionately want to be with her. As for Mitchell, he’s likeable enough, but I found him confusing: even after following him on his personal journey for such a long way, I can’t really say I understood him, especially not some of his decisions at the end.

The style also leaves a little to be desired. For one thing, there’s the use of time: when starting a new section (from a particular character’s point of view), Eugenides enters at a certain point, then flashes back to everything that’s happened to that character since we last saw them. This is generally still coherent, but can be a bit disorientating. Sometimes, as well, he goes into detail on events that don’t really have any relevance, like when Leonard randomly looks through a microscope at some yeast, or buys some saltwater taffy. Also, this is a pretty intellectual book. Madeleine’s earlier segments in particular talk a lot about aspects of literary study that definitely went over my head. Leonard’s biology talk (though I come from a biological background, so I was OK here) and Mitchell’s theology may be the same for some people.

So The Marriage Plot could have been better in just about every area, but is still OK as it is. Rating: 3/5.

About R.J. Southworth

Hi there. I've been blogging since January 2014, and I like to talk about all sorts of things: book reviews, film reviews, writing, science, history, or sometimes just sharing miscellaneous thoughts. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you!
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