Sunday, March 4, 2012

Jeffrey Eugenides looks at the harm novels can do.

I heard a review of this novel on the PBS Newshour, and I thought that perhaps I had neglected it unfairly. It is a far better novel than early reviews had led me to believe.

The Marriage Plot

The heroine of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (416 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28), Madeline Hanna is a student at Brown University when the novel opens. Set in 1982, Madeline is an English major first trying to cope with new theories that are turning English Studies upside down, or so she thinks.

As we hear about her reading and watch her trying to cope with complicated issues as she writes her papers and argues in class, we also see her complicated social life. She has a platonic relationship with a best friend, Mitchell, who sympathizes with her intellectually but also finds himself deeply physically attracted to her.

Madeline likes Mitchell fine, but she finds herself drawn to the more complex, depressive, and wildly intelligent Leonard. Leonard, handsome and large enough to overwhelm her at times, is enormously attractive to Madeline, both for himself and for the degree that Madeline might be able to save him.

In her reading for her English classes she loses herself in big and satisfying novels, and in her theory class she finally finds Barthes, after despairing at Derrida and the other theorists who leave her cold. In Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse she starts to find a diagnosis of her own condition. And although this is a satisfying discovery, it does nothing to help her when she feels that she has failed with Leonard.

Mitchell feels left out in the cold when Madeline is pursuing Leonard, and he turns to his own work in Religious Studies as something that might save him. He writes a paper that leads one of his professors to suggest Divinity School, but Mitchell has promised himself to travel after college, and that is what he does, first going to France, Italy, and Greece, and then on to India, where he works in Mother Teresa’s home for the dying in Calcutta.

While Mitchell does all this to try to forget Madeline, she marries Leonard and begins on a terrible downward spiral. Leonard’s mental illness becomes so pronounced that she finds it impossible to talk to him. After several hospitalizations, she wonders whether he will ever get better.

Everything comes to a head when she prepares for graduate school at Columbia—she has to find a place to live in New York and Leonard seems unable to share in this with her. At the same time, Mitchell comes back from India, and all three meet at a party of former Brown students on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Eugenides writes an eloquent and unpredictable ending for these three characters. It is definitely his own version of the marriage plot, but he doesn’t offer it until he has allowed Madeline to consider it and to make it her own.

Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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