Jeffrey Eugenidies’ Oprah and Pulitzer-endorsed Middlesex (2002) novel has a title that starts like a Victorian classic, but the page-turning epic weaves a semi-traditional tale of immigration with a modern one of gender identity. His new novel, The Marriage Plot also looks backward and forward, set in a time just before cell phones and CDs but still full of change. When you’re just getting out of college, all eras seem tumultuous.
When we meet Madeleine Hanna, she’s recovering from a drunken night and ill-advised sexual encounter. It’s her graduation day at Brown University, sometime in the 1980s, and her difficulty maneuvering the last days of her college career are a sign of the awkwardness of handling a young adult life. But if this is a coming of age tale it is more than just an arc of why is my body changing, but how is my mind developing, and how do I reconcile tradition with the modern world?
The titular plot refers to Madeleine’s senior thesis, which studies the arc of many a 19th century novel. Does the study of stories about love turn love into a studied, passionless thing? Eugenidies models his novel and guides his characters by the primary sources of her studies, but ironic distance is not the goal. The reader is genuinely involved in Madeleine’s choice between lovers, and the reader’s natural disposition may lead them to favor one or the other. Glimpses at the level of discourse in her class work–which involve both potential suitors–mirror the conflict in her life: Mitchell’s more patient, considered thought, and Leonard’s instant brilliance. But neither the novel’s heroine nor her contrasting suitors just types (although the elders among them are not nearly so well-drawn).
If you were to recommend to me a college-campus love triangle melodrama of ideas, I would quickly look the other way. But this avoids the pitfalls of many campus novels by the engaging conflicts of its major characters, who form a triangle of those ideas as well as love: Leonard, the golden boy with a brilliant scientific mind but mental setbacks; and Mitchell, the more introspective and spiritual scholar who considers converting to Catholicism. The spiritual life is treated with some skepticism but also with respect, and the book is likely to inspire the kind of heated arguments its characters make.
The Marriage Plot may not have the scope or ambition of his prizewinner, but it’s a worthy successor. It’s a mirror of the times that suggests that its struggles of love and philosophy never change.