In the wake of a life-changing, emotionally-intense experience, people often struggle to understand how their lives have changed.
College is one such powerful experience, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffrey Eugenides uses the postgraduate state of mind as the jumping-off point for his latest novel, “The Marriage Plot.” This book is without question the best fictional treatment of college life to come along in years.
“The Marriage Plot” opens on the day that Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus are scheduled to graduate from Brown University. Madeleine’s plans for graduate school are crumbling: her on-again, off-again friendship with religious scholar Mitchell is hanging by a thread, and brilliant Leonard, her ex-boyfriend, is showing signs of manic depression. Flashbacks fill in the complex love triangle between these three characters as well as their diverse academic interests.
Then the narrative jumps forward into postgraduate life, following Leonard’s struggle with his mental illness, Madeleine’s attempt to look after Leonard and simultaneously plan her own career and Mitchell’s wild quest around the world in search of religious truth. As these three people travel and examine the state of their lives, the novel gradually takes on an epic scope and becomes an absolutely engrossing read.
Like any standard work of college fiction, “The Marriage Plot” features a fair share of partying and sexual exploration. The first 15 pages memorably feature a hilarious and absolutely spot-on account of an awful hangover.
However, “The Marriage Plot” quickly abandons the clichés of college fiction for darker and more cerebral subject matter. The progression of Leonard’s manic depression is related in harrowing, heartbreaking detail.
Extended meditations on theology, deconstructionist literary theory and molecular biology punctuate the narrative. Cringe-inducing descriptions of illness appear in the chapters where Mitchell works in Mother Teresa’s Indian hospice. In short, the book is not for everyone. Still, “The Marriage Plot” takes the hopes, dreams and intellects of young people seriously, resulting in a much more authentic portrayal of college life than is generally seen in pop culture, such as in “Animal House” and “Legally Blonde.”
Besides believably conveying college and the difficulties of postgraduation life, the novel’s purpose appears to be two-fold. On one level, Eugenides emulates the tropes of Victorian romantic fiction — “The Marriage Plot” features a headstrong female protagonist, brooding and mysterious love interests,overbearing parents and a convoluted narrative centered on the female lead’s search for a suitable marriage partner. Eugenides simultaneously critiques the 19th century romance novel, showing the limits of this old-fashioned conception of courtship in reality, and in a post-feminist era.
This complex structure enables “The Marriage Plot” to function as a self-aware, postmodern text and as a rip-roaring yarn, full of twists and turns, like any good Austen or Dickens text.
In addition to the brainy foundations of the plot, Eugenides provides not one, but three compelling protagonists, all of whom struggle to understand their paradoxical personalities. Madeleine wants to be a serious scholar of Austen and the 19th-century marriage novel, but her stereotypical college female obsession with having a boyfriend constantly leads her to put off her academic dreams and truly become her own person.
Leonard fancies himself a scientific genius and sets about studying advanced biology, but constantly ignores expert advice about his own mental condition, which in turn causes him some dismay.
Mitchell longs to be a man of God, yet finds himself repulsed by the physically and emotionally taxing work of religious volunteer service. Mitchell, Madeleine and Leonard’s attempts to resolve the contradictions within themselves fuel the second half of the novel.
It is also worth mentioning that Eugenides does not always give equal time to the development of his characters’ personalities. “The Marriage Plot” starts off as Madeleine’s story, then becomes the story of all three protagonists equally and ends by focusing mainly on the final epiphanies of Mitchell. Still, Eugenides respects his characters and resolves all of their plot lines to some degree.
The deep psychological realism of the novel helps convey all the pain that can accompany first love, the transition from the insular world of college to real life and letting go of some fantasies. But sometimes we have to abandon old dreams, if we are to truly mature — or so Eugenides argues in the haunting final chapters.
Simply put, “The Marriage Plot” is a masterpiece — a work of remarkable wit and grace — and deserves to be shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.
Gorman is a member of the class of 2014.