The Marriage Plot, published in 2011, is the most recent novel by the legendary Jeffrey Eugenides. After a nine-year break, the book marks a refreshing shift from Eugenides’ earlier work, which includes The Virgin Suicides and the Pulitzer prize winning Middlesex. The Marriage Plot follows three fantastically complex, stunningly intelligent, and deeply likeable characters in the years following their graduation from Brown University in 1982. Madeleine Hanna is a brooding, beautiful, and rather lost English major caught in the traps of two hopeless love affairs—one with Victorian English literature and the other with Leonard Bankhead. Leonard is an enigmatic and brilliant nutcase. Eugenides slowly reveals that Leonard’s charisma, energy, and womanizing are disguises for a darker background of psychiatric troubles, crippling poverty, and family pain. The final character is Leonard and Madeleine’s classmate, whom they know more peripherally. Adorable, philosophical Mitchell Grammaticus is a religious-studies major prone to pining. He yearns principally for two life achievements: spiritual salvation and Madeleine Hanna’s hand in marriage. As the three young graduates prepare to transition to post-collegiate life, their intertwined pasts prove to shape their futures, however uncertain.
Mitchell departs for Europe and then Calcutta on a broke postgrad quest for identity. The book follows his attempt to resolve the theological and personal questions that torture him, as well as to finally let go of his unrealized, unrequited fantasy for Madeleine. He finds himself faced with monumental choices when, unexpectedly, she appears in his life after a dramatic romantic fall-out. The book sweeps us into a journey of enormous magnitude and emotion. Mitchell experiences spiritual rebirth during his volunteer work with the lonely and dying poor of Calcutta. His journey is heartbreaking, personal, and intensely compelling.
The book also takes a brave and honest dive into the theme of mental instability. Its portrait of severely bipolar Leonard, who oscillates between a superhuman force of warmth, wit, and charisma and a shell of his former self, is at once sensitive and damning. The book accounts his descent into near-insanity, which threatens to destroy his career, his engagement to Madeleine, and quite possibly his life. Madeleine struggles to care for him as he spirals into trances of self-loathing. Following Leonard’s struggle attracts both sympathy and fury, sometimes in the very same sentence.
It is difficult to choose exactly what I loved most about this symphony of a novel. The Marriage Plot is one of those books whose every word incites ripples of reflection and insight. Its greatest acclaim is its simultaneously intellectual and human spirit. Eugenides’ writing is as intensely intelligent as always, but without a trace of self-importance. The author brilliantly incorporates his usual intellectual depth into a novel that remains as lively as a sitcom. The lives of Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell are messy, stumbling, and sometimes foolish, but are exactly what makes the story so hopeful. The Marriage Plot is an endearing celebration of the sometimes anguished, sometimes elated twists and turns of life. Eugenides reminds the reader to be in love with life— that is a high achievement for a work of literature.