The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – Book Review

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Published by Farrar, Straus,and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan

From the publisher:

It’s the early 1980s—the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.

As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead—charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy—suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus—who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange—resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Madeleine is a fantastically familiar character to book lovers, and the connection becomes particularly poignant as her situation mirrors the marriage plot, that hallmark of her favorite literature. By reviving that form and making an English major the heroine, Eugenides creates in The Marriage Plot a fabulously meta narrative. Meta, though, is not enough to carry a book, and fortunately in The Marriage Plot, it doesn’t have to.

In many ways, what Eugenides is attempting here is quieter and less ambitious than Middlesex (really, how could it not be less ambitious than a multi-generational epic with a hermaphrodite as the main character?), but no less wonderful. Eugenides brings all three of his main characters to life in a wonderful, flawed way. For much of the book, I found myself greatly preferring Madeleine and Mitchell, as they narrate the majority of the story. Leonard, with his bipolar disorder, is a much tougher character to get a good feel for, but once Eugenides allows him to tell his own story, he becomes just as human and accessible, even in his mania. The writing is constantly engaging, by the second section The Marriage Plot becomes increasingly difficult to put down, as infused as it is with human emotion, and as invested as the reader becomes.

Do not pick up The Marriage Plot unless you are ready to become emotionally involved in the lives of the characters, but do pick it up if you are looking for a fabulous read. It is a very strong, well-written book, sure to appeal to book lovers.

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Source: Personal copy.

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13 comments to The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – Book Review

  • I agree that this is a great choice for book lovers. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I expected, but it did make a big impact on me.

  • I agree re: Leonard. It was enormously frustrating to watch Madeleine moon over him when he was clearly the Willoughby/Wickham/etc. of this story. The difference here is that Eugenides let us get to know the “bad” guy, so even though I still disliked the character at the end, I understood him.

  • I can’t wait to get to this one in January!

  • Beautifully written review. I actually found Mitchell the most appealing; his travels (both inner and outer) were fascinating to follow. I wanted to shake Madeleine quite a few times and I found her very frustrating, but I guess that means that she really got to me.

  • Glad you loved it! I liked it though not swept off my feet, but agree there was a lot to admire in it, nice Madeline/Mitchell chemistry as you point out; very insightful portrayal of Leonard.

  • I really need to read this! Silly reading slump had bad timing…

  • Jen-

    I am so glad you liked it. I was worried because we couldn’t have disagreed more about Freedom, which I thought was a bit similar. I love how the good old-fashioned love triangle is still one of the world’s best stories. And Madeleine was such a lovely protaganist – so young and embryonic, but you feel like she’s got the right stuff, that she will figure it all out somehow, someday. Although she was a complete fool for Leonard, didn’t we all make a few bad emotional choices when we were young? (Um, at least I did. We’ll have to get drunk & compare stories sometime!) Anyway, once she’d signed up for that gig, there was no easy way out. So many young people have to deal with the mental illness of a friend, and when you’re in that situation, you’re responsible – you can’t just walk away. What do you do? It makes you grow up very fast.

    I loved the reappearance of the Bachlorette’s Survival Kit, didn’t you? And as for us preferring Mitchell to Leonard, I have to chuckle a little, because of course Mitchell is the stand-in for Eugenides. One of the perks of being an author I guess.

    And yes, I agree it’s no Middlesex, but that’s okay. To me, the measure of Marriage Plot’s success is the degree to which you empathize with the characters. And I was in with both feet. Madeleine could have been me, could be my daughter, could be you. Doesn’t Oprah have a song like that?

    And the Madeline wallpaper had me at hello. My daughter and I read Madeline’s Christmas so many times we still know it by heart. So yah, I loved it.


  • I loved this book too! I do not, however, recommend the audiobook version.

  • I preferred Madeleine and Mitchell to Leonard as well. His part of the story was necessary, but tiresome. Wonderful book overall though.