Frontier Psychiatrist

Brown and Blue: A Review of Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

Posted on: November 14, 2011

Compared to his first two novels, the premise of the new Jeffrey Eugenides book seems tame. The Virgin Suicides (1993) features five teenage sisters who kill themselves. Middlesex (2002) is a multigenerational saga starring an understandably muddled hermaphrodite. His latest, The Marriage Plot, is about three kids who graduate from Brown in 1982 and try to figure out what to do with their lives. (The title refers to a convention of English novels in the 18th and 19th century). Seriously? Does he want to be satirized on Stuff White People Like or White Girl Problems?

What makes The Marriage Plot special is not the plot –a classic love triangle—but how Eugenides imbues his characters with complexity: from their anxiety about school and careers to more profound struggles with faith, family, class, commitment, love, and illness. At turns, the novel is somber, satirical, spiritual, and sexy: a masterful meditation on what is lost –and what is gained—when you become an adult.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Audio Book Excerpt)

If you went to an elite college, the characters in The Marriage Plot should seem familiar. They worship books, professors, and ideas, and then unwind with sex, drugs, and booze. (Yes, nerds party, too). After graduation, they backpack across Europe, take prestigious internships, apply to graduate school, and move en masse to New York, the most elite of American cities. Yet despite their gifts and opportunities, they’ve got a bad case of weltzschmertz: imprisoned by privilege, too stubborn to settle, too smart to be happy.

Like a college admissions office, Eugenides tries to make his three protagonists diverse (or at least as diverse as three white heterosexual nerds can be). One’s from the East, one’s from the Midwest, one’s from the West. One is rich, one is poor, one is middle-class. One studies literature, one studies science, one studies religion. In line with the novel’s religious undercurrent, they seem like the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost of the Trinity: separate, yet intertwined and part of a whole. All three are lovesick pilgrims in search of a higher purpose: one of many ways in which The Marriage Plot is indebted to J.D. Salinger’s Franny. Indeed a piece of Franny Glass appears in each character: The scientist Leonard Bankhead has her fragility; the religion major Mitchell Grammaticus has her spirituality; and the literary Madeleine Hanna shares her conflicted feminism.

In both length and style, The Marriage Plot is more conventional than its predecessors. At 400 pages, the book is twice the length of The Virgin Suicides, but slightly more than half as long as Middlesex. Unlike the former, told in the unusual first person plural (“We”) and the latter, which alternates between first and third person, The Marriage Plot is told in third person, switching points of view among the characters.

As geographically ambitious as Middlesex, The Marriage Plot moves from New England to Europe to India, with stops in the author’s native Michigan, his ancestral Greece, and his current home of New Jersey, where he teaches at Princeton. While there are plenty of 1980s pop culture references, vintage details like patients smoking in hospitals, and a notable absence of computers and cell phones, the more significant allusions are intellectual, as in the novel’s opening lines:

“To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with a good helping of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters.”

Ultimately, The Marriage Plot is a book for people who love books, for people who loved college and look back fondly on their youth. A similar theme runs through The Virgin Suicides where the nameless adult narrators pine for the dead Lisbon girls and the innocence they represent. Nearly 30 years after his own graduation from Brown, Eugenides seems neither too close to nor too distant from his subject: close enough to capture the literal truth, but distant enough to capture the emotional truth. He treats his young characters with reverence, yet acknowledges their flaws and immaturity. While he clearly admires the institution of college, he also recognizes its limitations, especially the gap between campus and the ‘real world.’ Who knows? Maybe his next novel will be about people in graduate school.

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently reviewed 1Q84, the new novel by Haruki Murakami. Brown in the early 80s sounds a lot like Yale in the late 90s.

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2 Responses to "Brown and Blue: A Review of Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot"

I’m glad you reviewed this because I loved the first two books and read a tepid review of Eugenides’ latest and wondered if I should read it. After reading your review (and as someone who loves books) I will definitely check it out.

[…] AT: I really love Quentin Tarantino, and I thought Inglorious Basterds is his best yet. I basically watch two kinds of movies: art films and shitty action movies, like old martial arts or Jean Claude Van Damme movies, and I think Tarantino is the only one to blend those two genres so seamlessly. As far as authors are concerned, I’ve been digging Jeffery Eugenides, whose new book Marriage Plot I just picked up. [Click to read the FP Review of The Marriage Plot] […]

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