One of the most terrifying and exciting times of a young person’s life is the year after college. This postgrad, prejob year[(years)—Alas!] can be fraught with frugal travel, false starts, broken hearts, premature engagements, limited income and generous portions of humility.
It’s an awkward stage most of us—observers and subjects—wish to be done with. Except for Pulitzer-prize winning author Jeffrey Eugenides, who immerses the reader in this age in his latest novel, The Marriage Plot. Though his three main characters are immensely interesting to themselves, his triad does not escape a sort of intellectualized navel introspection. While it may be spot on for that age, it does not make for engaging reading. Even Eugenides lofty ambition to contemporize the literary love novel of Victorian times, or for his heroine to use literary love as a guide to her own questions on the meaning of love, this book is a slog. I’ve heard it been called a satire for its jabs at literary theorists—the idea that reading a novel for enjoyment is pedestrian—but aren’t satires supposed to be comic if not entertaining? The Marriage Plot is neither.
I loved his 2003 Middlesex, its originality, its familiarity, the tide of its epic plot—a bildungsroman of three generations of a 20th century American family all told by the enchanting charisma of our hermaphrodite narrator. Middlesex is the only reason I tore off my eyelids to endure this soporific.
As in most of his work, Eugenides loves probing the mind of the female protagonist. His femme literal in this case is Madeleine Hanna, proper Ivy League daughter of east coast intellectuals, who considers graduate school when a paper of hers on the tradition of the marriage plot in English literature is championed by a professor. She’s in love with Leonard Bankhead, semiotics and science genius who is as charismatic as he is mercurial. The displaced son of loveless alcoholics, Bankhead soon succumbs to manic depression and Maddy is there to rescue him and tolerate him, hoping that the medication will fix him. The most compelling part of the narrative is Leonard’s battle with the disease, the descriptions of it, and Maddy’s duty to him, specifically the marital life sentence that accompanies the disease. The third part of this love triangle is Mitchell Grammaticus, a Michigan boy like Eugenides who attends Brown in the early eighties like Eugenides who intellectually explores religion and spirituality while developing an unrequited crush on Maddy, who freshman year brought him home to meet the parents. An intellectual friend, unfortunately for him.
This is mostly backstory. The first quarter of the book is all this packed into graduation day at Brown University in the early 1982. The rest of the book is the unfurling of the next year for the three of them. For all Bankhead knows, he does not know how to love, and for all Maddy’s scholarship and dutifulness, she’s beginning to get that real love can not be understood by study alone. Mitchell travels Europe on his way to Calcutta, where he volunteers for Mother Teresa and learns that he doesn’t have the calling—thanks to fecal duty—for the sanctified. Yet, his love for Maddy endures. Perhaps the most fitting sentence snapshot of the book is a bit of dialogue from a 65-year-old German traveler, who tells Mitchell, “Let’s not pretend to know each other by autobiography.”
Too bad Eugenides doesn’t follow the German’s advice. Maybe that’s not true: Eugenides keeps us coming back to the moment as the three of these postgrads grapple with the notion of love, it’s just not that interesting. Same can be said of these richly complex characters: you know them better than some of your college friends but knowing them that well may be the turn off. I would care more about these characters later in life than in this amorphous formative ooze because at this point I’d rather slap them out of their suspended post grad navels into forward action. There are plenty more mistakes to be made.