Is it fair to write a review on a book that will now be one of my favorites of all time? I’ve never had it happen before. I wasn’t expecting The Marriage Plot to have such an effect on me. I loved his earlier hit Middlesex. Wasn’t a huge fan of The Virgin Suicides. But Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest novel, The Marriage Plot, was one of those books that permeated my soul, that I will forever reference and remember as a reminder of my college years, a definitive tome of the college experience through the lens of a literary minded female.
It begins, requisitely, with books. The heroine, Madeleine, a graduating senior at Brown University, is in her room with a headache after a mysterious night of revelry, the story of which isn’t revealed until later. Eugenides doesn’t start with Madeleine, though: he starts with her books. Dickens, Austen, “the Colette novels she read on the sly,” Edith Wharton novels “arranged not by title by date of publication,” and “a smidgeon of Trollope.” Madeleine always wondered, with the expected egoism of an intelligent, beautiful girl, what the book collection said about her. “And then you waited for the result,” Eugenides writes, “hoping for ‘Artistic,’ or ‘Passionate,’ thinking you could live with ‘Sensitive,’ secretly fearing ‘Narcissistic’ and ‘Domestic,’ but finally being presented with an outcome that cut both ways and made you feel different depending on the day, the hour, or the guy you happened to be dating: ‘Incurably Romantic.’”
Here, Eugenides establishes the central question of the novel: How do books influence love? Madeleine, the slightly narcissistic but still quite likable heroine, enters a love triangle wherein this question is explored and tested. Enter Mitchell Grammaticus, the endearingly nerdy Religious Studies major who pines for Madeleine since day one of freshman year, but is relegated time after time to the friend zone. After Mitchell comes Leonard Bankhead, the moody mystery man from Oregon she meets in her semiotics class.
The rest of the novel follows the relationship between Madeleine and these two men; specifically, though—and this is what makes the novel so extraordinary—through the lens of what Madeleine is reading. When she and Leonard break up, she wallows in her room with a copy of A Lover’s Discourse. When her roommates try to get her to go to a graduation party, their threat is the demolishment of her beloved, tattered book (so of course she goes, unable to stand the thought of parting with it).
The Marriage Plot is impulsively readable and beautifully written. The college experience—the parties, the parent visits, the roommates, and most importantly, the education—is depicted in a way that is both instantly familiar and refreshingly original. It’s Eugenides writing that makes this possible, and of course, his own Brown experience that plays into his ability to make it seem so real. For example, at a party Madeleine attends, a party-goer brings his own imported beer. “Don’t take the Grolsch,” he tells her when she’s rummaging the fridge for a drink. “They’re mine.” Only at Brown, right?
To return to the central question: How do books influence love? You’ll have to read it and judge for yourself. I do think that the Francois de la Rochefoucauld quote Eugenides includes on his opening page is quite telling: People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.
Worth Reading: I already warned you that I’m biased, but I think any college student would enjoy this. I’d go even further and say that any college student should read this. With the intellectual experience being increasingly lost in the dumbing-down of our educational system, Madeleine gives us an inspiring intellectual lens through which to look through the world. Her life is actually informed by her classes! Who would’ve thought?
Time taken: Clocking in at 406 pages, The Marriage Plot is not a quick read by any means. I finished it in two sittings. But I have a feeling that’s not exactly normal. I’d give the average, busy student two weeks.