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The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

January 5, 2012

It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead – charismatic loner and college Darwinist – suddenly turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus – who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange – resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to re-evaluate everything they have learned. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, travelling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.


This is the first book I’ve ever read by Jeffrey Eugenides. I’ve watched the film adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, but for some reason his books just seemed to pass me by, and I’m not entirely sure why. However, I can safely say that this will definitely not be the last book of his I will ever read, and I have to thank Harper Collins for holding a competition where I won a signed first edition of this novel! Without them I may have gone my whole life without having read a Jeffrey Eugenides novel…

After hearing a few mixed reviews of The Marriage Plot, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, if anything I probably expected to dislike it more than like it, but instead I found myself falling in love with it – not just the plot and the characters, but more importantly Eugenides’ writing. There is something so truly beautiful about his prose that I was left feeling mesmerised, in awe, but above all else – inspired.

This is a perfect book for anyone who haves a passion for books – it will take you right back to your school and university days, it will remind you just why you probably chose to study English Literature, and exactly what it is you love about books so much.

The central character, Madeleine, is writing her dissertation on the marriage plot; a convention used in Victorian literature to depict whether or not the hero and heroine would get married; usually this was seen as the woman’s only route to success, and the only fate open to her. This is essentially quite an American novel in its setting of American colleges and frat parties, but it does talk at great length of the famous English novels and will certainly capture the heart of anyone with a love and appreciation for classic literature. Eugenides skilfully compares the device of the marriage plot to our modern society today – can a couple really fall head over heels in love, conquer all the odds, and marry and live happily ever after? Or has our society now changed in such a way that this is no longer feasible. In a world surrounded by divorce, adultery, gender equality, the recession and so on. Women now have much more freedom, and finding a man to marry and settling down isn’t everything any more. We have careers and dreams to fulfil and ambitions to conquer.

Madeleine’s life soon turns into a rather odd love triangle. We have the exceedingly intelligent and rather quirky character Leonard, who Madeleine becomes insanely attracted to. Then there is Mitchell, the “friend” who dotes upon her every word, but doesn’t quite manage to capture her heart in the way he thinks he truly desires. The story switches between Mitchell and Madeleine’s viewpoints as Madeleine struggles in her relationship with Leonard who becomes increasingly depressed and suffers bouts of mania that put them both through trying times. Whilst Mitchell, on the other hand, is off travelling, waiting for the recession to pass so he can return to a better economy, and a better chance of finding a job. However, he can’t quite get Madeleine out of his mind.

I absolutely adored this novel. I know other reviewers have called it slow and dull, and nothing in comparison to Eugenides’ Pulitzer prize-winning Middlesex. I haven’t read any of his previous work so I couldn’t possibly compare. If you read the basic plot it might sound like your average college-romance novel, but it really is Eugenides’ wonderful and perfect prose that brings these characters to life. I cared about them like they were my own friends, and I felt such empathy for them as they were growing up and leaving college, and embarking on their journey into the real world, finding love and seeking new ambitions. This is what life is all about, and Eugenides captures these moments perfectly.

If I could criticise this novel in any way, I would have to say that there are perhaps a few passages that felt overloaded with literary jargon, almost like you are actually reading someone’s English Literature dissertation, and this definitely slowed the pacing of the novel. I did find myself taking quite a while to read the novel compared to usual, and although at times I was certainly cherishing it and making it last, I do have to owe some of it to the slightly over-loaded passages. However, Eugenides does give you the perfect ending to make up for it…I will say no more.

I’d almost forgotten what it was like to read a novel written by a truly great writer. Sure, I’ve read some great novels over the years that I have loved and cherished and raved about. But there is definitely something about Eugenides that just makes you want to curl up and read everything he has ever written, and then wait in earnest for him to write more. The Marriage Plot is a perfect example of great modern literature that could easily become a classic in 100 years time, and I can’t wait to devour more of his work.

The Marriage Plot is out now in hardback, published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins. A big thank you goes to the publisher for my beautiful signed first edition!

A big shout out goes to Brenna over at Literary Musings for her wonderful review of The Marriage Plot, that made me want to read it in the first place! Read her review here.


9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2012 22:33

    This book looks so quirky! It also has been hailed by many newspapers I’ve seen lately as the best novel of 2011, so I’m glad to see that these reviewers are right, for once. Middlesex has been on my TBR list forever…

  2. Ariel Price permalink
    January 5, 2012 22:48

    I just finished reading this as well. And, like you, I found Eugenides’s prose to be inspiring. It completely drew me in. It definitely did remind me of struggling through some of the same texts Madeleine reads. I also related to Mitchell’s existential ponderings and attraction to religion. But the one problem I had with the book was the ending. I know you avoid mentioning it here, but as a happily married young person, I was very saddened. What did you think? I’ll be writing my review on this book later today or tomorrow, so you should stop by. Thank you for sharing!

    • January 6, 2012 00:01

      Glad you enjoyed it as much as I did! I actually really liked the ending. I think it would have been a bit typical if everything was ‘happy ever after’ in the end….I think it was more of a journey of self-discovery for them both, and not really about them ending up together. I’ll definitely check out your blog when you post your review! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  3. Carol Allen permalink
    January 7, 2012 12:16

    Hi, I follow your blog quite often but haven’t commented before. I read this book over Christmas and loved it. I had read Middlesex a few years ago and really enjoyed it so I was looking forward to his next book. I agree that it takes you back to uni days studying literature but also he was so clever in showing how the main characters were being formed by their study of ideas. (I had to look up Roland Barthes at one point!) I liked the ending – she tried her best to stay married after all!

    • January 7, 2012 15:34

      Lovely to hear from you Carol 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as I did! I was given Middlesex at Christmas and really can’t wait to read it now! There’s just something truly special about Eugenides’ writing. You’ve made an excellent point in how clever he has been to show his characters being formed by their study of ideas. I think I got so much out of this book that I didn’t really have the space to include it all in my review, looking back on it now. Thanks for your comment and I hope to hear from you again! Thanks for following the blog!


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