The Marriage Plot (2011)

by Jeffrey Eugenides

As Jeffrey Eugenides’s book opens, Madeleine, the main female character, is about to graduate from Brown University with a degree in English. She loves 19th-century novels, whose bread and butter was the “marriage plot.” But in the 1980s, when women have more options and divorce is acceptable, can a writer build a novel around a marriage plot? That is Eugenides’s challenge.

Coming from an affluent, sheltered background, Madeleine “instinctively avoids unstable people,” yet she falls in love with the brilliant and manic-depressive Leonard. Hovering in the background is the pleasant, well-behaved Mitchell, in unrequited love with Madeleine.

Madeleine marries Leonard, with predictably disastrous consequences. Meanwhile, Mitchell goes abroad, culminating in a spiritual quest in India. Although Leonard eventually leaves the picture and Mitchell returns, the novel does not end as a 19th-century marriage plot would have.

The Marriage Plot is an intellectual book, with discussions of semiotics and biology research that average readers may not care to wade through. Saving it from being downbeat is that Madeleine rather than Leonard is the center of the story, and hers is a positive resolution.

Many believe that Eugenides modeled Mitchell on himself and Leonard on his friend David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008.


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