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Eugenides' two previous novels are smart and thought-provoking, but The Marriage Plot is his first to be so explicitly self-aware as a piece of literature, immersed in academic ideas. He tells the story of three brilliant young people, Mitchell, Leonard, and Madeleine, in their senior year at Brown University and the year following their graduation. It is set in the early 1980s, the time that Eugenides himself attended Brown, and the novelist draws on his own experience in giving details of the time and place, including the enthusiasm for literary theory that was so debated in English departments at that time. Judging from the reader reviews on Amazon.com, the heavy dose of discussion of Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and even some less well known scholars is alienating to many readers. So this is a novel for people with some tolerance of academic discussion. There is even a good amount of theology here, when Mitchell gets deep into his religious studies courses and seriously considers becoming a priest. The book may restrict itself to readers with particular background and interest, but many people have gone to college and have at least heard of a number of the authors the characters sometimes discuss. Those without the background will still be able to follow the plot, and those with the background will find the book especially interesting because it is more ambitious in its goals than most novels published this year.
Mitchell and Leonard are both in love with Maddy. She dates Leonard for much of her time in college, but they break up in their senior year. Mitchell and his friend Larry leave for a world trip soon after graduation, so he barely gets the chance to take advantage of Maddy's new single status. He writes her letters and once he returns from India, he gets to spend time with her, and their relationship is resolved.
Leonard is a biology major, but he also has a deep interest in philosophy and religion. He has a melancholy streak, but he is normally charming and erudite. Occasionally he is pompous and dismissive of others, and he is in such a phase when he splits up with Madeleine. She is distraught at their break up, and she spends her time reading Barthes as a consolation. Then she discovers that he has been admitted to a psychiatric ward because of his depression, and she rushes back to him, and they reunite. Leonard has won a position at a prestigious research institute and the two of them go there, while she works on writing that will help her get into graduate school. Their domestic life is difficult, because he is troubled and she is in a position of caring for him now that he is on medication and is in a fragile state. He is difficult to be with, and there is a major strain in their relationship. Eventually they move to New Jersey, staying with her parents, with the aim of eventually moving to Manhattan. But the prospect of the move is very frightening to Leonard, and she feels like he is making her life much more difficult than it should be. She wonders whether she should be making this sacrifice for him.
While Leonard and Madeleine are going through tumultuous swings in their relationship, Mitchell discovers the world outside America, and is most influenced by the extraordinary experiences he has in India. He is struggling to work out what he wants to do with his life. He wants to marry Madeleine, but he is also interested in becoming a monk, and avoiding all sex and longing. He is open to a religious life, yet he has not worked out how to make sense of religious belief. So his trip to India enables him, if not to find himself, then to define himself. He is a far more resilient character than Leonard, but he is just as lost. Of the three, Madeleine is the most grounded, having a supportive family, even though she often argues with her sister and father, and sometimes her mother.
The novel has at its center the graduation ceremony at Brown, showing the events leading up to it and the events following from it, sometimes going back to childhood. Often the same set of events is told from different perspectives at different points in the novel, showing how the central characters vary in their experience. We come to a better understanding of what is going on in their lives by seeing the ways in which their interests and preoccupations mold how the world seems to them.
However, this is not just a descriptive novel, because it also invites the reader to take a stance. Mitchell is a sympathetic character and it is easy to sympathize with him. Madeleine is occasionally self-indulgent, and her privileged background makes it easier to be impatient with her. But it is Leonard who really invites criticism. While clearly extremely smart, he is self-preoccupied and manipulative. He hides his mental illness from Madeleine and is demanding of her. While he does seek treatment, there is also a side of his illness he enjoys, and he is not willing to give that up. Part of his problem is his rationalizing use of Madeleine, and while it may be medical in nature, it still seems like a character flaw. Even his final act of releasing Madeleine from her responsibility for him is tinged with self-indulgence and a sense that he does not care about those who care for him.
One may wonder if Eugenides is giving Leonard a few deal here. Several commentators have commented on some superficial similarities between Leonard and the novelist David Foster Wallace; Eugenides has denied that Leonard is based on the novelist, by pointing out that in other superficial ways, the characters are quite different. Whatever the basis for the character of Leonard, he comes off as sad and hopeless, and someone that most people would want to keep at arms distance, because involvement with him would be trouble. While both Mitchell and Madeleine have very promising futures by the end of the novel, Leonard's is far more in doubt, and the reader is not inclined to even feel bad for him about this.
It is hard to say at this stage how well The Marriage Plot will stand up to future scrutiny. It runs a risk of appearing dated and overly clever, but, for now, it is a fascinating picture of American culture. It certainly compares well to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, and trounces his more recent novel Freedom, which it more closely resembles at least in its preoccupation with sex. While Franzen's insights into sex are thought-provoking, Eugenides is far more able to give his readers a complete picture of the emotional importance of sex in a relationship. While the prospect of Franzen's next novel generates an inner groan with the expectation that it will be yet another rehashing of the same set of preoccupations, we can look forward to the next novel by Eugenides with enthusiasm as he explores new themes with fresh approaches.
The performance of the unabridged audiobook by David Pittu is full of energy; Pittu keeps the characters distinct and is able to deliver even the passages that are theory-heavy with enthusiam.
Link: Review of Middlesex
© 2011 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York