Review: The Marriage Plot

by Jeffrey Eugenides
by Jeffrey Eugenides

I like to think I have a decent eye for good novels. My tendency is to choose books that I will not only like, but like extremely enthusiastically. I am on par in this most of the time, but sometimes I miss the mark. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides was a good novel. It was challenging, intellectual, and fairly interesting, but it wasn’t great. It didn’t get me overly excited or rah rah rah. Rather, I was a little underwhelmed.

But don’t get me wrong. Eugenides didn’t win a Pulitzer for nothing. The writing is smart and occasionally snappy. This is my first Eugenides novel so I’m not certain how it stacks up against the rest, but it’s not at all a bad book. It just wasn’t the experience I thought I was going to have.

The Marriage Plot tells the story of Madeleine Hanna, a recent college graduate obsessed with the Victorian era female writers (plus Jane Austen, but we all know she’s technically regency). It basically goes through her post-college crisis (i.e. what am I going to do with my life?) and her relationship with two men, the complicated, emotionally disastrous  and completely unstable Leonard Bankhead and the nice, smart, goofy best friend/Ducky type Mitchell Grammaticus. You can see that I am very biased  in my character preferences.

My problems with the book: It seemed chock full of pseudo-intellectual comments for the sake of being pseudo-intellectual, rather than necessary for true development of character. That was just the kind of book it was. It seemed like it was created for the academic set of people to pick it up and get a good ha-ha, which was alienating even when I did get the inside literary/literary criticism subtext. I may have learned more about random academia than the characters (which is a feat unto itself). Secondly, it seemed to be less a story about realistic, round characters than a sort of weird, quasi-Freudian case study of romance. I felt like characters made terrible choices and I wasn’t sure why. Certain characters who can see so much good in someone who is clearly negative completely ignores the greatness in someone that could be positive.  I suppose that is what the book is really about. The modern day marriage plot is nothing like the tales Austen and Bronte put together. If anything they’re closer to a George Eliot, Middlemarchian tale of ultimate sacrifice. People don’t usually get their Darcy (unless they’re lucky). They stumble along, actively seeking the bad decisions because there’s less investment in the entire notion of marriage. How many end in divorce these days? One in four? Something like that. It’s bad news bears either way.

I think the book is trying to play off that dynamic; how the marriage plot has certainly changed, which is an admirable endeavor. The book is very smart and well written. It has good scenes and engaging moments even if I found the ending to be a bit tepid. Would I recommend it? Maybe. If you’re into learning a bit as well as getting some story. Do I regret it? Never. I never regret reading a book, except for the play Measure for Measure. Don’t read that ever, if you can help it. All of the rest of Shakespeare’s plays are on the money, but I don’t know what happened with that one.

But anyway, I digress. The Marriage Plot was a fine book, if not just okay, which is … okay! Thank you and good night.



4 thoughts on “Review: The Marriage Plot

  1. Hi, I completely agree with your review: I never became really attached to the characters and their fates. You might like his book Middlesex better. Eumenides is an extremely intelligent writer, and Middlesex has more passion. I found The Marriage Plot to be a little cold. —Jadi

    1. Exactly! It felt pretty cold and more than a little clinical. I’ll have to check out Middlesex. I’ve also heard The Virgin Suicides are pretty good. I’ll give him another shot!

  2. Read Middlesex. You will be amazed. I think The Marriage Plot was exceptional. I don’t agree with your review. Up until the last word, I was taken into his world and his characters.

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