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The Marriage Plot

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Fiction (2011)
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 the 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.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can't escape the secret responsible for Leonard's seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.

406 pages, Hardcover

First published October 1, 2011

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About the author

Jeffrey Eugenides

42 books8,979 followers
Jeffrey Kent Eugenides is an American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer of Greek and Irish extraction.

Eugenides was born in Detroit, Michigan, of Greek and Irish descent. He attended Grosse Pointe's private University Liggett School. He took his undergraduate degree at Brown University, graduating in 1983. He later earned an M.A. in Creative Writing from Stanford University.

In 1986 he received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship for his story "Here Comes Winston, Full of the Holy Spirit". His 1993 novel, The Virgin Suicides, gained mainstream interest with the 1999 film adaptation directed by Sofia Coppola. The novel was reissued in 2009.

Eugenides is reluctant to appear in public or disclose details about his private life, except through Michigan-area book signings in which he details the influence of Detroit and his high-school experiences on his writings. He has said that he has been haunted by the decline of Detroit.

Jeffrey Eugenides lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife, the photographer and sculptor Karen Yamauchi, and their daughter. In the fall of 2007, Eugenides joined the faculty of Princeton University's Program in Creative Writing.

His 2002 novel, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Ambassador Book Award. Part of it was set in Berlin, Germany, where Eugenides lived from 1999 to 2004, but it was chiefly concerned with the Greek-American immigrant experience in the United States, against the rise and fall of Detroit. It explores the experience of the intersexed in the USA. Eugenides has also published short stories.

Eugenides is the editor of the collection of short stories titled My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead. The proceeds of the collection go to the writing center 826 Chicago, established to encourage young people's writing.


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5 stars
19,082 (16%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 11,948 reviews
Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,401 reviews11.7k followers
October 29, 2011
Pretentious. I try to stay away from this word reviewing books, because too many of my favorites literary novels have been called that and it hurt. But The Marriage Plot is pretentious. And also pompous, elitist, privileged and self-important.

I just can't quite believe that the author who managed to make stories of 5 suicidal girls and a Greek hermaphrodite so compelling, could come up with something like The Marriage Plot and think it a worthy tale to tell. A rich, freshly graduated from Brown, English major girl waffling about reading Austen and trying to get laid/fall in love/get married? Really? No amount of references to English lit, semiotics and philosophy can elevate this story from its triteness.

I mean, truly, who can relate to this novel about rich people's mundane dilemmas? All these people do is show off their sophistication and education in front of each other (and us, readers) and going through some kind of existential crises while being utterly removed from real world problems. Someone on goodreads has compared The Marriage Plot to Eat, Pray, Love. Right on the money, if you ask me.
Profile Image for Gerald.
Author 54 books427 followers
October 23, 2011
Masterful on many levels. At first I wasn't drawn to any of the three characters in the love triangle - Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell. Each seemed deeply flawed, and they are. Except you read along and find that Eugenides thinks we all are, just as deeply in our unique ways, and are none the lesser for it. That's the way people are, and the way life goes. We stumble through it, thinking we are somehow in control, and it's what happens nevertheless while we are furiously busy making other plans, or simply fretting about making up our minds.

This is a literary novel, in the best sense, and I was surprised to read some critics cramming it into the diminutive genre "campus novel." That would be like classifying Pride and Prejudice as a rom com, which is not as irrelevant as it sounds. The marriage plot, you see, is the genre form of which that work is representative. Eugenides wants to know whether the marriage plot is dead as a meaningful literary form, now that marriage seems hardly worthy as the ultimate goal of youthful aspirations.

Then there's the theme of semiotics. I studied with Roland Barthes (yes, I'm that old) and back then I don't think the term semiotics even existed. At least, I don't recall his ever having used it. But he talked incessantly about structuralism, that a novel is a long sentence spoken by its author, a literary construct waiting to be parsed. Understand, I didn't get any of this from him back then, just from what others, including Susan Sontag, have written about him since. His lesson plan was built around Balzac's short story "Sarrasine," which is the engrossing tale of a man obsessed by an opera star who turns out to be both a castralto and the "kept woman" of a powerful priest. But why Barthes chose that story for his criticism totally escaped me at the time, and I can only surmise now what his intentions were.

But back to Eugenides. The characters meet in a semiotics class at Brown, and the author gives a lot of detail about the subject and its impact on their personal thoughts. Semiotics claims, for example, that humans would not experience love as we have come to understand it unless we had read about it (or seen movies about it) first. There's a similar concept in Stendhal's The Red and the Black, in which the narrator comments that peasants in the French countryside cope with life less well than the sophisticated citizens of Paris, who have all read novels that give them models for how to act in society.

Ultimately, this is a novel about perception, what we make of reality as it is happening to us, and our inability to make meaning of events in time to control their outcome. Things happen or they don't. Things work out or they don't. They mostly don't, and we move on.

Perhaps significantly, the character in this book who understands himself best is the one whose grasp on reality is most tenuous, because he has to work at staying sane. In his acknowledgements, Eugenides credits several experts and sources for genetic research (another theme), but he thanks no one for his extensive detailing of bipolar disorder and its treatment. So naturally I wonder how he came by this information, and at what personal cost.

Cross-posted on www.boychiklit.com
Profile Image for Whitney.
20 reviews7 followers
December 4, 2013
I'm convinced this is what happens if you combine a Whit Stillman script, Franny and Zooey, and a whole lot of beige. There's some beautiful writing here, unfortunately there's equally lot of bland writing. It doesn't help that the characters are dull either. At times, I couldn't believe that this was nine years in the making...yet at the same time I could. Let's just say the writing has a certain over-wrought feel to it.

Madeleine, the main heroine is a snooze. She's basically a stock dream girl - to quote one passage: "She may have looked normal on the outside but once you'd seen her handwriting you knew she was deliciously complicated inside". Uh, how about no.

I'm not sure if this was something on the authors part to show us how much Mitchell (the third corner of the love triangle) romanticized her, but the author doesn't seem to make this clear (what he does make clear though is that she's VERY attractive). There doesn't seem to be any real life in her, as Eugenides seems to tell rather than show how allegedly interesting and brilliant she is. It's unfortunate and the book definitely suffers because of it.

Her suitors, Mitchell and Leonard seem to have a little more to them, Leonard more so - his section is where the book finally gets going. He's as vulnerable as he is flawed, and we begin to see why Madeleine is obsessed with him. Yet there's also a point where his motives become downright scary. He's pompous, but unlike the other two, he's at least somewhat interesting. Unfortunately he's given only one section of the book.

The third protagonist, Mitchell, is an intellectual religious studies major from Detroit, so there's a bit of Middlesex-like feel to certain parts of his character, as he also has a Greek background. But Mitchell has the terrible distinction of being "the nice guy" of the story. It doesn't help that he seems to be plagued with the smarmy blandness that Madeleine suffers from. In the end, I really couldn't bring myself to care whether or not these two privileged, neurotic intellectuals would ever find true love with each other.

There's also a lot of references to books and authors, like Barthes and Derrida. At times I felt as if I were reading a dissertation or a meditation rather than a book with a plot - which considering the subject matter, I suppose is intentionally ironic, but still tedious. Overall, I can't help but feel this is something only an English major could love. Definitely a disappointment from Eugenides.
Profile Image for Mindy.
1 review
December 4, 2013
While there are passages that are beautiful in only the way Eugenides can write, they act more like flashes of brilliance in an otherwise dull and lazy novel.

The first part of the book shoves Semiotics into your brain and reads like the most terrible and awkwardly pretentious college courses that no one should ever have to suffer. And throughout it all, I kept feeling like this book was only for English majors (and maybe Philosophy majors), and had an agenda that did not involve telling a good story. And really, why read fiction if not to read a good story?

But the biggest flaw for me, that I just absolutely can’t forgive, is how falsely Eugenides portrays “manic depression.” You’d think a writer of his caliber and fame would have taken the time to research it--and god forbid, actually talk to and spend time with someone who is bipolar. Hell, Wikipedia even has an accurate enough description of the disease that Eugenides could have gone from that and not failed as epically as he did.

Furthermore, Madeline is the flattest female character I’ve read of late. She’s spoiled and from a well-off family, which would be tolerable if Eugenides gave readers a reason to care about her. But he doesn’t. We’re told in the beginning she’s a romantic and loves books, and while we see her bookshelf and the authors she takes comfort in, that’s the end of her development as a character. Eugenides spends the entire novel yanking her to and fro, and it isn’t until the second half of the book that he finally figures her out and gives her some roundness (most notably through a sort of personal in-joke in reference to the "Madeline” children’s books). The one character who may have some depth is Mitchell, who is so clearly the only character that most closely resembles Eugenides in personality and experiences.

And what’s up with the ending?
Profile Image for Candi.
614 reviews4,641 followers
January 10, 2019
"In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely."

By presenting us with a compelling and contemporary story, I believe Jeffrey Eugenides quite successfully dispels the notion expressed above in The Marriage Plot. The novel is very much alive and doing quite well here. This is a razor sharp examination of literature, love (and the love triangle), college life, religion, and mental illness. It’s a book full of ideas, and at times it got slightly bogged down with some weightier literary discourse and theory, but overall it held my attention and I found it rather fascinating.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the plot, but suffice it to say that it’s about three college students about to graduate from Brown University in the early 1980s. The easygoing Mitchell has been in love with Madeleine throughout his college career, but Madeleine thus far is only interested in a friendship, and on her own terms. Leonard is the brooding and enigmatic individual, not unlike some of the protagonists in Madeleine’s favorite form of literature – the Victorian novel. Madeleine meets Leonard when she decides to branch out and take a course in semiotics, a form of literary theory of signs and symbols that was becoming quite fashionable at Brown during this time. "Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love." What Madeleine doesn’t realize as she falls in love is that Mitchell suffers from manic depression. We then follow the trio on their subsequent journeys following college graduation.

As much as I couldn’t relate directly to these characters and their particular experiences, there was something about this novel that rang so true. The time in life when one is ‘finding’ his or herself - falling in love and being rejected by the one you love; the feeling that if you don’t have ‘the one’ then love will likely never come to you at all. The depiction of a person struggling with mental illness and the effects this has on his or her loved ones was outstanding. "He felt as if he were being violently emptied out, as if a big magnet were pulling his blood and fluids down into the earth." It is an emotionally charged ride of highs and lows, and those closest to the afflicted are drawn into the vicious cycle as well. "There comes a moment, when you get lost in the woods, when the woods begin to feel like home. The further Leonard receded from other people, the more he relied on Madeleine, and the more he relied on her, the deeper she was willing to follow." While these two become ensnared in the reality of this hell, Mitchell has taken off to Europe and Asia with a backpack and a desire to explore his spirituality. His journey, as he dabbles in various religions with an attempt to understand where he fits, is equally fascinating. This is not an in-depth examination of theology, much to my relief, but a thought-provoking look at both faith and doubt and provides some food for a bit of self-reflection as well. The three eventually come together once again, and I was rather on edge wondering how Eugenides was going to handle what happens next. I thought the ending was actually rather brilliant, and I wish I could share a favorite quote from here, but that would simply give too much away so I won’t!

The Marriage Plot is my second encounter with this author, having just read the remarkable Middlesex several months ago, and I really did like it a lot. I never truly connected with any of the main characters, although I could sympathize with some of their questions and struggles, and it did feel a bit esoteric particularly in the first portion. However, I found myself always wanting to get back to this book even during the holiday stress, and, of course, the writing is quite exceptional. For those reasons, I have to give this one 4 stars.

Here are a few more bookish quotes I loved:

"She wanted a book to take her places she couldn’t go herself. She thought a writer should work harder writing a book than she did reading it. When it came to letters and literature, Madeleine championed a virtue that had fallen out of esteem: namely, clarity."

"To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Brontë sisters."

"Against tremendous odds, without anyone giving them the right to take up the pen or a proper education, women such as Anne Finch, Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontës, and Emily Dickinson had taken up the pen anyway, not only joining in the grand literary project but, if you could believe Gilbert and Gubar, creating a new literature at the same time, playing a man’s game while subverting it."
Profile Image for Fabian.
947 reviews1,564 followers
January 26, 2019
“The experience… was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in “Anna Karenina”, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure...”

But this particular novel, thank goodness, isn't at all like this. Its thoroughly affecting and modern, smart and hella funny—it has very few of those moments of nothingness, of the reader just exhaling in deep confusion, exasperation. What is the marriage plot and why does it have such a tiny relevance in today's modern society? Read “The Marriage Plot” & find out!

Not every novel can be “Middlesex,” that most perfect, most ambitious of ALL modern reads (the other two being "The Feast of the Goat" by Vargas Llosa & "The Human Stain" by Roth). But reading Eugenides involves becoming hyper-aware of just how much pretentiousness exists in all other modern novels. Eugenides is the most unpretentious of the modern masters: he writes like a river that flows evenly, that contains only the purest of sentences--he's stylistically uncomplicated. This time around, leaving behind those manic depressive virgins and poignant hermaphrodites of yesteryear, Eugenides manages to find the poetry in the minutiae which writers like Dave Eggers or Jonathan Franzen could only dream about. Eugenides is both the literati’s best friend and the casual reader’s companion. Although it is a gamble to introduce yet another love triangle to the literary sphere, the Pulitzer winner obviously pulls it off—giving his audience pretty much what they’ve wanted for years (that is, something less heavy than his last two novels of adolescent despair, for one that’s more optimistic about modern love while still remaining authentically moving).
Profile Image for Andrew Smith.
1,052 reviews580 followers
May 16, 2021
I’d loved the author’s tour de force Middlesex and had recently worked through his anthology of short stories, Fresh Complaint, where I came across a tale that really interested me – well, in truth, it spooked me a little too. The story, written in 1996, is called Air Mail and it concerns a young man called Mitchell who is suffering badly from a bout of diarrhoea whilst temporarily staying at a remote beach in Thailand. The ending of the story is ambiguous – did he just die? I just didn’t know, and it played on my mind. Then I discovered that Mitchell also featured in another work from the same author – this novel – and I had to get my hands on it. It would help me unravel the fate of Mitchell whilst giving me another opportunity to appreciate the fine prose of this outstanding writer.

The Marriage Plot tells the story of three young people who studied at Brown University in the early 1980’s:

Madeleine Hanna – the daughter of Waspish parents and a lover of Victorian novels is studying semiotics (a subject quite hard to grasp, but in essence it concerns the study of signs which can help a reader to look for clichés in language and the structure of novels).

Leonard Bankhead – a manic-depressive science prodigy and philosophy student came to Brown having survived a tough upbringing.

Mitchell Grammaticus – a softly spoken and thoughtful religious scholar from a Greek-American family.

The heart of the story is the relationship between these three: in essence, meditative Mitchell loves beautiful Madeleine but Madeleine loves the energetic and engaging Leonard. But then there’s a fourth person in the room in the shape of Leonard’s mania, which becomes an ever growing part of the the story as it works through. Can he control his disorder through his daily doses of lithium or will it ultimately control him and drive his destiny? And can Madeleine cope with his periods of frantic activity followed by phases of deep depression? It’s a roller coaster ride, both for the characters in the book and, I found, for me as I became ever more engaged in the lives of this group.

We follow their development as they leave Brown and start to experience life beyond its confines: Madeleine accompanies Leonard to Cape Cod, where he’s accepted a biology fellowship, and Mitchell sets off in the general direction of India, with the aim of working in Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying. As the story played out, I confess I failed to warm to Madeleine who I found to be weak and indecisive but I grew to like the amiable, reflective Mitchell a lot. Most of all though, I enjoyed Leonard in his manic moments. When he’s ‘up’ he’s funny and quick and clever I could fully see why Madeleine fell for him. But when he’s down it’s a totally different story.

There are numerous literary references sprinkled throughout this novel and there’s barely a moment when at least one of the three isn’t reading, ruminating on the worth of a book or discussing an aspect of a book’s content with another. It can feel like quite heavy going, but, for the most part, I enjoyed the academic debates and verbal jousting. I learnt quite a bit too - I don’t think I’ll be reaching for a book by Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida anytime soon… but there might just come a time.

It’s a clever and heartfelt study of three people seeking love and enlightenment and on this level alone it works. But throw in the opportunity to feast on literary references, ponder over the merits of various religious groups and learn of the reproductive qualities of yeast and you have a book like few others. There’s no doubt a significant autobiographical element to this book too, given the similarities to the author’s own family background (Greek-American, like Mitchell) and his studies at Brown, also in the early 1980’s. If you’ve the time and the patience, I’d thoroughly recommend spending some time with this book.

Footnote: I was pleased to discover that Mitchell didn’t, after all, die floating in the sea off a Thai beach – he survived that episode. It’s not mentioned directly in this book, written some 15 years after Air Mail, but I was able to pinpoint the approximate point it would have featured in Mitchell’s travels.
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books785 followers
September 20, 2016
I loved The Virgin Suicides for its style, imagery and voice. I loved Middlesex for its 'epic' storytelling, its characters and a lyrical flight of fancy near the end that I think I'll never forget. Because of the lofty standards the author's previous works set for me perhaps it is inevitable, despite the trademark humor and intelligence evident in this novel too, that this one couldn't live up to the others. Perhaps it's just that the elements I liked in this novel didn't add up to a cohesive whole for me.

Early on I wasn't too sure about it, but continued on because of my love for his other novels. I was glad I did because I ended up enjoying it while reading it for the most part. JE's prose is compulsively readable and his characters are well-developed and interesting, especially when he's inside Leonard's head. I was thinking perhaps JE wouldn't speak from Leonard (but hoping he would) as it took a while to get to him; later, I wished for at least one more section devoted to Leonard. The intensity in Leonard's voice was, at times, almost hard to read; but I think it was the best part of the book, though perhaps not as essential to its theme.

I was reminded of Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, though the parallels are not exact, of course.
Profile Image for James.
Author 19 books3,578 followers
March 14, 2020
3 stars to Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot. My book club selected this a few years ago, given they had all previously read Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides before I joined. I've since moved and not with that book club anymore, but I keep in touch with many of them. I hadn't read either book, but I did watch the movie "The Virgin Suicides" and I drove through a town called Middlesex in NJ, whenever I would go back and forth to college in Pennsylvania. I suppose that doesn't count for much, nor do I know if it's even about that town... but I dove in and read "The Marriage Plot."

What a fun title... I had expectations of a funny romance, some secret side-action, a mystery or two over why someone wanted to get married. And some of those things were included in the book, but it's not exactly what I thought it would be. That said, it wasn't a disappointment... it just felt rather...

Part of the issue was the characters were just "so so" for me. I didn't dislike them, but I didn't attach myself to them as much as I should have. The plot was good. And there are lots of lessons and thoughts you'll get from reading this one. All stuff I enjoyed reading. But I just walked away from it thinking "Glad I read it... I think I like the author... very different from what I saw in the movie I had watched based on one of his other books... not sure where to go next."

Some people loved it. Seems a lot were just OK with, like I was. I still want to read Middlesex. Sorry I'm not of much help on this one... but I wouldn't tell you not to read it. It was clever enough to get into it and have some curiosities over how it would end up. And his language is always great. And his views on topics, or I mean the character's views on topics... ooops... definitely prompt you to think a lot.

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Profile Image for J.S.A. Lowe.
Author 2 books38 followers
September 6, 2012
Okay, fine, Jeffrey, you win. You made me care about these twenty-something white college kids despite myself. Setting certain crucial sections in a) the psych unit and b) a hospice in India was probably what saved you, as well as a loopy last-five-pages accellerando during which you niftily dump the marriage plot device on its head. Also some unvarnished sex scenes and more than one wincingly convincing young-couple argument. But you know what? I still hold you to those first 200 pages of REALLY shamelessly clunky prose, and you can't get around it by having your main character reflect piously on how refreshing it is to hit a smooth passage of Tolstoy after wading through pages of notes on agrarian reform. Quit trying to Wharton yourself, and just be Eugenides. I should probably give this two stars but I'm in a pleasant insomniac hypomanic mood, so you're lucky. No Pulitzer, though.
Profile Image for Rekha.
858 reviews
January 8, 2012
I am trying to decide if I really liked this book so much because I really liked it so much, or if I really liked it because it made me feel smart without really having to do anything. I fear it is the latter, but check back with me later on that. That said, the story is about the relationship between Mitchell who loves Madeleine who loves Leonard. I never figured out who Leonard loves. It's basically an intellectualized, sort of depressing rom-com, if that even makes any sense.

Profile Image for Holly.
918 reviews6 followers
June 13, 2017
I only finished a quarter of this book before I had to return it to the library (express check-out). I think it should have been called The Marriage Plop. Granted, I'm no literary genius, just some schmuck with a science degree, so I don't get all the references, but beyond that I found each character hideously irritating and didn't really care how the story progressed or ended.

The book club consensus was as follows: Some of us liked it, most of us didn't, but EVERYONE was disappointed.
Profile Image for switterbug (Betsey).
830 reviews767 followers
October 9, 2011
Kafka said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Stories that bore holes, blasting through the ice and earth rather than piling more on top of a parched, idle field, has the capacity to alter the reader, produce a chemical reaction and transgress the space that has already been traversed.

Eugenides’ revolutionary novel THE VIRGIN SUICIDES blew the dust off the languid spines of literature shelves and, although the context wasn’t new (suburbia, Baby Boom generation), his Greek chorus of narrators and laconic treatment of shocking and tragic events allowed the reader a lot of space to interpret and experience the inscrutability of the feminine mystique. He allowed questions to be more meaningful than answers. Although the five blonde virgin girls were archetypal, he bent the very signifier of archetype with great irony and paradox.

MIDDLESEX, a Pulitzer winner in 2003, brought intersex issues to the forefront. Rose Tremain (among others) had tackled this previously, but the acclaim and mainstream success of Eugenides’ novel was unprecedented. The context of a Greek immigrant family’s history (Eugenides is also Greek) and the polarized male/female dyad was praised for its social commentary, penetrating prose, and androgynous style of narration.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT is not groundbreaking or unpredictable. Eugenides makes familiar, even prosaic pit stops in this largely phallocentric, chick lit love triangle (but a loose triangle) set in 1982 on the cusp of graduation at Brown University, an academic institution which embraces postmodernism. Over-familiar themes get a boost because of the textual discussion of semiotics and Eugenides’ renegade, rogue prose style and levity, making the scholarly concerns accessible and thought provoking. The best parts of the book were the academic digressions.

The story explores the thesis of deconstruction, attainment, and illusion, pursuing (that overwrought theme of) romantic love and individuation while coming-of-age within a specific social construct—in this book, the 80’s and on the continuum of feminism. Derrida and Barthes et al flood the pages and add the most exuberant boosts to a long-winded, sometimes stagnant storyline of Cupidity. The narrative and plot reduce romance to the banal, and to Jodi Picoult territory, but from a misogynistic window (however shrewdly disguised).

Eugenides taunts the slings and arrows of hearts and broken hearts with such lyrical, fetching effusion that the journey is deceptively captivating, even while it ambushes you to a pre-ordained destination. He also explores the conundrum his female protagonist, Madeleine, faces in trying to reconcile feminism with her taste for Victorian love and literature, and her dependent tethering to a man-- her object of desire, Leonard. I was disappointed in the lack of new insight here, even though it was gussied up to parallel a formal construct of the title’s origin--18th and 19th century novels by Austen, Eliot, Henry James, and the Brontë sisters.

Madeleine Hanna, an intelligent and exceptionally beautiful protagonist, is an archetype that doesn’t really stray from the time-honored territory, so as the story progresses, she is more watered down and reduced to making stock choices. Leonard, her lover, is bipolar, an often treatable disease, with complications-- the illness seduces its hostage into grandiose self-doctoring.

However, Leonard’s narcissism, a personality disorder, wasn’t addressed philosophically or otherwise. His mood disorder was hammered relentlessly, though, and left nothing for the reader to imagine, which made it difficult to comprehend his charm, or relate to his illness, which eventually became stale. If the author purposely propelled us toward exhaustion with the illness (in order to illustrate its effect on others), he did a bang-up job. But, Eugenides, at the end of the day, condescends to the feminine mystique. This was one of Madeleine’s epiphanies (she is talking about Leonard’s male anatomy):

“…almost a third presence in the bed. She found herself sometimes judiciously weighing it in her hand. Did it all come down to the physical, in the end? Is that what love was? Life was so unfair. Madeleine felt sorry for all the men who weren't Leonard." She also referred to Leonard's endowment as "Mr. Gumby."

A shopworn and not terribly gifted “aha” moment, considering Eugenides' talent. Eugenides overindulges in the shock and awe, blow by blow plight of Leonard’s illness, considering the 500 or so pages of text, so that Leonard drifts into caricature. Madeleine��s insights, far from dawning, felt rehearsed by the author, even fusty. Moreover, Leonard’s bandana-wearing, manic, tobacco-chewing, intellectually doddering self appears to be a smarmy take on David Foster Wallace, but not very convincing, outside the superficial attributes.

Mitchell Grammaticus, the seeker, journeys to Europe and India to find some answers to his Gnosticism and inculcate the mysticism he desires; his unrequited love to Madeleine is supplanted by his ability to mine and discover the self independently, something Madeleine’s character doesn’t evoke for herself. Still, there is little that Mitchell says or thinks that hasn’t been carved out before, although Eugenides does it with panache, as he is a first-class prose artist. There are also tendrils of his peer, Jonathan Franzen, in his style.

Just about every choice Madeleine makes is in response to men, not guided by anything individual. That may be realistic, in this story, and in Eugenides’ eyes, but when I think of outstanding literature, Kafka’s statement comes to mind. Eugenides’ latest has been so preliminarily lauded and celebrated that it is already a sacred cow, and risky to criticize. FSG rented a billboard in Times Square, something stationary and ingrained for motorists and pedestrians to pass every day.

Hailed as iconic, as well as iconoclastic, Eugenides' achievements precede this book. For this reader, he was skating on slick and thin ice, without cutting or boring through, but with an urgent velocity that leaves you breathless and warm on the one hand, constricted and cold on the other. 3.5
Profile Image for B the BookAddict.
300 reviews654 followers
February 10, 2017

For anyone who has attended college, this will make you think of those days; the exams, lectures, life on campus, study, relationships, parties etc. The stress of preparing a senior thesis...makes me exhausted just to remember it. The scope of this novel is wide. While I loved this novel, I found writing a review is tough because it's a story of many parts; coming of age, a love triangle, college life, drama, 'privileged/underprivileged students', manic depression, travel, religion. This is all expressed with Euegenides' explemary style, his flowing sentences and incredible insight.

Mitchell loves Madeleine and Madeleine loves Leonard - a conundrum especially since Leonard suits Madeleine in certain ways and Mitchell suits her in others. The story starts at Brown campus in 1982 and all three are due to graduate. Madeleine is waiting for acceptance into Yale etc, Leonard for a fellowship and Mitchell has work with a professor in India lined up. Madeleine is writing her senior thesis on the marriage plot Victorian novels of Austen/Eliot/James, she is financially privileged, socially comfortable; her life hasn't encounted many problems so far. Then she falls for Leonard who is brilliant, witty, a science major struggling to make ends meet. But who she soon realises has manic depression, something he has kept hidden under the glittering persona he presents on campus. Mitchell is gentle, a deep thinker who finds that religion and theology is where his interest lies. The three embark on life after college, they all discover life is very different in the 'real' world.

There is very little I can say beyond an enthusiastic 'You must read this book'. I was smitten by Eugenidies prose from the first page and missed the characters and the story long after I finished the novel. 4.5★

Profile Image for Megan Baxter.
985 reviews656 followers
May 19, 2014
It's hard to follow Middlesex. Practically anything that came from Jeffrey Eugenides' pen or computer or whatever was going to pale in comparison. And indeed, this isn't as good as Middlesex. But don't mistake that for not being good. The Marriage Plot may not reach those lofty heights, but it's still a solid read.

Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.

In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
Profile Image for Gary  the Bookworm.
130 reviews127 followers
August 26, 2016
Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos
To compare this to Middlesex is a mistake-akin to comparing grand opera to an intimate chamber piece. This book succeeds because it takes the structure and theme of a nineteenth century novel and turns them upside down. The love triangle which drives the plot reminds me of the Freudian view of self. Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos
At its core is Madeleine(ego), who has spent her time consuming stories about love without absorbing their lessons about life. She falls hard for Leonard (id) and enters into a permanent relationship with him despite strong objections from her WASP parents and a nagging doubt about his sanity. Mitchell (super ego) thinks that only he understands-and deserves-Maddy even though he has never attained the status of boyfriend to her.

These three travel the world and try to sort out how they feel about each other and, more significantly, themselves. It is a funny-and sad-comedy of manners for the twenty-first century. Henry James would approve.
Profile Image for Ed.
584 reviews71 followers
February 9, 2012
Having been a big fan of Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, it's needless to say that his latest, The Marriage Plot, immediately went on my virtual to-read-list. But despite making many a year-end best-of list and literary award-nominated, it almost as quickly tumbled down my list as heard very mixed things about it (including the inevitable "not as good" as Middlesex). It only made it back up my list when it was announced as one of the #1 seeds in the Tournament of Books competition. I am glad it did. Despite it being only February, it will no doubt be one of my favorite reads of 2012.

The novel gets its name from a Victorian novel literary device: which one of two suitors will the lady end up with? At its very simplistic core, The Marriage Plot is the journey of a love triangle... but with modern/revisionist twist... and a satire of academia, as well at the 1980s... with healthy doses/passages on literature, philosophy, theology, biology and more. It is a very literary, very smart work. In other words, others will (and do!) find it pretentious, snooty, elitist... and will (and do!) find the tone and characters unbearable. Others might get frustrated with the back-and-forth, push-pull nature of the narrative, but for me it was intricately crafted with Eugenides painting wonderful overall scenes and going back to fill-in/touch-up with nice detail to really bring it all together.

The novel reminded me of other recent-ish reads... romantic comedy elements and a real deep affection for the principal characters of One Day (a book I loved, others despise)... the physical and spiritual journey of Eat, Pray, Love (some folks are really running for the hills now!), and very much so of another acclaimed novel from last year, The Art of Fielding with the academic setting, the coming-of-adult-age tale, and the exploration of love/sex/relationships. Fielding was dubbed "Eugenides-lite" and I certainly agree with that assessment as Eugenides is a master class vs. these other works (all of which I very much enjoyed).

Yes, it's not Middlesex, but I'd offer up that The Marriage Plot is a far richer and more ambitious work, but surface-wise slyly disguised as something quite generic. This will not work for everyone, but for me it was an evolution for Eugenides where I didn't think there was a whole lot room for improvement in the first place.
Profile Image for Sarah .
72 reviews35 followers
March 7, 2012
This was the first book that I read in my first house I bought late last year. I saw Eugenides (one of my favorite authors ever) speak and received an autographed copy, which had a dust jacket that my dog Franny chewed his face from. I loved the Fresh Air interview where he spoke about this book, as well. And I had been waiting for this book for soOOOoo long. I was VERY excited to read it once it was finally in my hands.

This book was a major letdown, truth be told. I really love and admire The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. They are both such different books but they are in love with metaphor and simile and imagery and maybe all those devices made me love him. It was like he spent days on each sentence (which is probably why it takes him a bajillion years between novels.) I didn't get that with this book. The language was much more straightforward. But even so, it was pretty good, being written by Pulitzer Prize winning Jeffrey Eugenides, after all.

Maybe it was the protagonist. Madeleine wasn't my favorite character. An audience member told him that she didn't love the protagonist, either, and asked if he did that on purpose. He assured her that he liked Madeleine just fine and then the audience girl seemed embarrassed and apologetic. He was funny about it, though. I agree with her! I have faced the sorts of situations Madeleine goes up against and I still didn't sympathize with her. I wanted to love it, though, like I loved his other two, and I didn't. Super sad face!

I did sort of love the ending, though. Did any of you read it, yet? Make me love it! Convince me. Please.

Sarah Montambo Powell
Profile Image for Grace Tjan.
188 reviews506 followers
January 26, 2012
BookFiendUSA: So, how was it? My GR friends’ reviews are all over the place on this one. How does it compare to Virgin Suicides or Middlesex?

SandyBanks1971: It’s…OK. Not badly written at all, but nothing incredible either. I can’t compare it with Eugenides’ earlier works, as I have never read anything by him before.

BookFiendUSA: Seriously? You’ve never even seen the Sofia Coppola movie?

SandyBanks1971: Nope. But I’ve read the synopses of the earlier books, and I can tell you that there are absolutely no virgins, suicides or hermaphrodites in this one. Instead, we get a manic-depressive, a wannabe Christian and an English major.

BookFiendUSA: No hermaphrodites?

SandyBanks1971: No. But there is a Marriage Plot.

BookFiendUSA: Explain.

SandyBanks1971: It’s a common plot in 18th and 19th century literature. Typically, there is this girl --- the heroine --- and she has to choose between different suitors, and there will be all sorts of hijinks (pride, prejudices, misunderstandings, madwomen in the attic, etc.) before the nuptial payoff. Austen, Eliot and the Brontes used it extensively in their books.

BookFiendUSA: It’s a romcom!

SandyBanks1971: Something like that. The heroine in this book, Madeline, is an English major (“English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.”) who is steeped in these books and has to choose between Leonard, the brooding, brilliant manic depressive, and Mitchell, the earnest, spiritually inclined sensitive guy. I looked forward to how Eugenides is going to use this sort of plot in a modern setting and how he is going to resolve it. As one of Madeline's professor muses, “What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?” “How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? ... Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays?” I’m also curious about whether the central romantic triangle is based on any particular 19th century novel (Franzen recently did this in Freedom).

BookFiendUSA: So ---?

SandyBanks1971: Eugenides does use the marriage plot, but the ending is a sort of a deconstruction of its traditional form. After all, in an age of gender equality and easy divorces, how could the Marriage Plot still matter? Leonard is obviously the Heathcliff type, and Mitchell is maybe a mix between Linton and St. John Rivers. Madeline is --- actually I don’t quite know who she really is, especially compared to the male protagonists. Eugenides gives her a pretty extensive biography, and an intermittent ambition to go to grad school and write for literary reviews, but other than that, she seems to be merely a flimsy foil for her suitors. Early on, we are told that she loves Austen and James, but unlike Mitchell and Leonard, whose lives are transformed by the books that they read, there seems to be hardly any connection between her and those books. In a pivotal moment, she reflects on…Madeline. Yes, this Madeline, the little convent schoolgirl from Paris.

Leonard ruminates on Nietzche and Mitchell has his Thomas Merton inspired epiphanies, and Madeline thinks deeply about Madeline? Why can’t she reflect on Wuthering Heights? Or, I dunno, Middlemarch? Or Persuasion? We never learn about what Madeline really thinks of the marriage plot --- and the obvious parallels to her private life --- either (her thesis is, after all, titled: “I Thought You’d Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot”). If The Marriage Plot is meant to be a modern reworking of an Austen or Bronte novel, this lack of development of her character is big minus.

BookFiendUSA: Okay, so the major female character is lame. I get it. I’d rather read a ton of Madeline books than a Henry James, though. Now, some people think that this novel is terribly pretentious, with its Ivy League setting, WASP characters and lengthy Barthes quotations. Do you agree?

SandyBanks1971: Not necessarily. I mean, he’s writing about life in an Ivy League campus --- is there going to be an egghead or two, trust-fund babies, and academic egotists on steroid? You bet. To be fair, some of the kids are wealthy WASP types, but Leonard needs financial aid, and Mitchell is Greek and strictly middle class. There’s lots of name-dropping, but in most cases, they’re followed by sufficient exposition. The quotes are necessary to understand the characters’ mindset, as they live in books as much as in the real world. And Eugenides is actually poking fun, wryly, at some of the faddish academic theories:

“Madeline had a feeling that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature. They wanted to demote the author. They wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers.”

BookFiendUSA: Anything else that you like?

SandyBanks1971: I like how he writes about being in your early twenties, just out of college with your whole life stretching ahead of you. Grappling with issues, intellectual or otherwise. How everything seems to be of looming importance. How stuff happens, sometimes casually, that determine how you life the rest of your life. I think he captures that well, and can be quite eloquent about it. So I guess I’ll check out the suicides and hermaphrodites.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews21 followers
December 13, 2011
I love Jeffrey Eugenides. In just the few pages I've read, I can tell this is a book to savior---sip the juices of Jeffrey's beautiful writing slowly.

I'm excited reading this book....(reading each sentence-turning each page lights a fire in me). I already don't want this story to end--(and I still have most of the book to read).

Madeleine Hanna is the main protagonist...
She is in love with Leonard...
Mitchell is in love with her...

Back to Semiotics class 211 ...

"English is what people major in College--who don't know what else to major in". (so...that was my problem at U.C. Berkeley in the 70's---I believed that line too much even back in 1970)...instead of following my heart!

I was a Kinesiology major ---but I was in LOVE with my English classes at Cal.

LOVED IT!!!!!!!!!!
Profile Image for Barry Pierce.
559 reviews7,433 followers
September 6, 2014
Ugh. This novel is asinine. It follows a group of pretentious people going around and being pretentious while talking about pretentious things and generally trying to get a reaction from my gag reflex. I mean at one point a character just takes "Finnegans Wake" out of their pocket, I mean seriously. I feel like the main point of this novel is just Eugenides shouting, "look how many books I've read!". It's rubbish of the highest degree. It also manages to be worse than Eugenides' other waste of paper, The Virgin Suicides. Don't read this novel, it's vomit inducing. Truly terrible.
Profile Image for Baba.
3,562 reviews859 followers
December 31, 2020
World class interpretation of young romance from college through to post grad life, by a world class writer. Even a very overused theme like this, is given new life by Eugenides, as he weaves mental health, WASP families, jocks vs nerds, unrequited love, platonic friendships, searching for religion into this very well crafted drama. 8 out of 12.
Profile Image for Abyssdancer (Hanging in there!).
131 reviews14 followers
March 6, 2022
“It seemed especially cruel, then, three days later, in the hospital, when the doctor came into the room to tell Leonard that he suffered from something that would never go away, something that could only be “managed,” as if managing, for an eighteen-year-old looking out on life, could be any life at all.”

This book follows the lives of Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell as they graduate from Brown University in 1982 and adjust to their new lives as independent adults. Madeleine, an English Literature major who clings to the waning importance of Victorian literature, thinks she is madly in love with Leonard, and she runs to be by his side when she finds out on Graduation Day that Leonard has been hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Leonard, a double major in philosophy and biology, hates taking psych meds and tries to wean himself off the medication as he struggles to maintain his fellowship at the Pilgrim Lake Institute. Mitchell, who fell madly in love with Madeleine during their freshman year, still yearns for her after graduation, and thinks of her while traveling through Europe and India to find the meaning of life.

Madeleine moves to Cape Cod with Leonard during his fellowship year, and grows more and more frustrated with Leonard, at first because he acts so sluggish and lethargic on all the medication. She has to assume the role of the caretaker and make sure that he is always taking his meds. Leonard senses her frustration, and after being called out by his professor because of his lack of focus and statistical errors, he starts to wean himself off the medications so that the brilliance of his mania can be awakened once more. Meanwhile, Mitchell travels throughout France with his best friend Larry, then they move on to Greece and India, where Mitchell volunteers at the men’s hospital created by Mother Teresa.

This book so perfectly depicts the struggle of bipolar disorder from the points of view of both the person struggling to manage the disease and the loved ones who must be constantly vigilant about tracking potential symptoms and rearranging their lives to accommodate the disease. Leonard and Madeleine eventually get married, but once Leonard stops taking his meds, he has a psychotic break and must come to grips that he must struggle all his life and never fully live his life. Madeleine cares for and defends Leonard against her parents and friends who think Leonard is sucking the life out of her. However, there are ways Madeleine can escape the relationship, while Leonard must always bear the burden of his disorder and realize that his opportunities in life will always be framed in terms of adequate stress levels and limited concentration.

However, I particularly enjoyed reading about Mitchell’s adventures in Europe and India. He is so open-minded about religion and culture, and while harboring the belief that Madeleine is still his soulmate, he chases after ephemeral epiphanies about the role Jesus plays in the lives of sinners repenting their wrongs. He tries to embrace Catholicism, but his heart is open to any religion that calms his soul and fills the emptiness of life without Madeleine.

I loved the way the author weaved the three story lines together, showing how interrelated all three individuals were to each other and how the struggles of one individual could dictate the choices and opportunities of the others. One thing about this book that disappointed me, however, was how hopeless life seemed for Leonard at the end. From experience, opportunities for those suffering with bipolar disorder can be limited because of the stigma attached to such individuals as falling apart because of high stress levels or that such individuals will crash and burn according to the side of the spectrum the cycle has swung. Leonard tried so hard to follow the doctors’ orders to stay on his meds and see a therapist, and Madeleine tried so hard to love him and remain committed to him, but nothing seemed to help …

I would highly recommend this book, however. The three main characters were so innately flawed, but throughout this book, they strived to realize their dreams, and loved so deeply on so many different levels. The profound emotion of the story lines can be exhausting, but for me at least, the lingering emotions of each character will haunt me for a very long time …
Profile Image for Linda.
189 reviews9 followers
October 21, 2011
I am enjoying the marriage plot. Set in a college town in the Eighties, it appeals to those of us who majored in literature or did post grad studies. Madeleine's love life is often hilarious, sometimes sad. Eugenides
writes great satire. Here is an excerpt:"Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights. What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world. Then too there were lots of weddings in Wharton and Austen. There were all kinds of irresistible gloomy men."
I enjoyed the book as it portrayed the dilemma of choosing between two men who provide different companionship. One is rather like Heathcliff, the other is Mitchell the better choice. Madeleine has to make this discovery herself. I enjoyed Mitchell's visits to Paris and India in search of himself.
Profile Image for Al.
37 reviews
June 29, 2012
I'm afraid that I don't know enough about the old marriage plot novels (Austen, Elliot, James, etc.) that this one references to really "get" everything Eugenides is trying to do here. For example, I initially found Madeline to be fairly thinly rendered in comparison to the more fully fleshed out intellectual and emotional lives of her male counterparts, but by the end I thought that might be part of the point (ie. that she exists on the page only as an ideal mirrors the way she exists to her suitors). There were other things I found a little disappointing that may also be explained away, such as how the semiotic/deconstructionist thread of the first act is dropped for the remainder of the book, though the entire work itself clearly intends to fit that category. Maybe that doesn't sound like a 5 star review, but I did find it extremely well crafted and written, and the problems I have with it are more those that raise questions than just this-or-that was done poorly.
Profile Image for Liz Janet.
579 reviews381 followers
February 12, 2016
It is books like this one that make me weep for humanity. What went wrong Eugenides? Well, everything. I do not think I have ever read a more pretentious book in all of my life. It is filled with pretensions people that do nothing but be pretentious, and this is coming from a self-proclaimed pretentious person that loves pretentious books, I am offended.
I don't hate the guy, I loved Middlesex, and liked The Virgin suicides, but this book drove me into the schism. It did have some good moments, but they were few and there were long separations in between.

Profile Image for ατζινάβωτο φέγι..
176 reviews6 followers
July 26, 2017
Η με��αγχολία της αντίστασης και της παράδοσης σε μια ιστορία ενηλικίωσης οπου νιώθεις να κοιτάς μεσα απο την κλειδαρότρυπα σε αυτό που θα μπορούσε να είναι ή ειναι η ζωή σου. Και για αυτό δεν μπορείς να σταματήσεις να διαβάζεις γοητευμένος απο την αφήγηση και τον πλούτο ( συναισθηματικό και γνωστικό) που σου προσφερει απλόχερα ο Ευγενίδης. Γεμάτος κατανόηση και αγάπη για τους ηρωες του. Σαν τον Σάλιντζερ.
Profile Image for David.
22 reviews8 followers
August 13, 2011
Having loved Middlesex so much, I'm having troubles talking about this book. I think I understand that Eugey was going for something--toying with old conventions used in the Victorian/Austen era. He puts enough literary history/theory in here to fell a horse, and with this, I think he's saying, "Just want to make you aware that I KNOW [that this is unoriginal]." He titled this book The Marriage Plot in reference to the well known plot structure in which a beautiful young woman must choose between two suitors.

Unfortunately, I hate those books. Perhaps it is because I am not a female and cannot relate, but the story seems very stale and the internal narratives somewhat hackneyed. The only interesting parts of the narrative are concerning Leonard's mental illness. We get to see his mania from all kinds of different perspectives, which is interesting. However, Mitchell's religious and metaphysical wandering and Madeline's insecurity were just boring to me. I felt I'd read them before.

Aside from the plot, Eugenides goes off on tangents about the history of English literature, religious scholarship, molecular behavior of yeast, semiotics, and more. Some of this serves to reflect elements of the story, but some of it is just pontification. Most of it just comes off as pompous. He is obviously extremely intelligent and knowledgeable, but he's being very loud about it here. And another thing about ego: every creative writing instructor you'll ever have will tell you NOT to write about college, especially not to write about college romances. They'll also tell you not to have the novel start with someone waking up. However, Jeffrey Eugenides has done both of these things, presumably just to be audacious. But I think it's backfired. Even though I realized what he was doing, breaking those rules, I still couldn't like it.

All this said, though, I can't knock it for bad writing. I can't knock it for intelligence. And I finished it, which does say something about its level of engagement. I'd like to hear others' opinions when they read this one.
Profile Image for Emily Crowe.
355 reviews129 followers
December 4, 2013
Though I have been a bookseller for more years than I'm willing to confess, I have somehow never read Jeffrey Eugenides, despite his Pulitzer Prize and the fact that The Virgin Suicides is the favorite novel of one of my favorite sales reps (shout-out to Michael Kindness!). It's not that I was actively not reading Eugenides. I just hadn't gotten around to it yet. Enter his new book this October from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux called The Marriage Plot, which my bookstore is considering for its signed First Editions Club, and for which I am one of the readers.

It's the story of Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard in the early 1980s, following them in their senior year at Brown and then into the "real world" as they fumble and stumble their way outside the gates of the rarefied and privileged atmosphere of the Ivy League campus they leave behind. Madeleine is an English major smitten with the great English novels when she takes her first semiotics class. Leonard is the brilliant but understated young man whose campus mystique serves to mask his bipolar disorder. Mitchell is the religious studies major who is as given to ponder the mysteries of life as he is to ponder Madeleine as his destined life partner. Mitchell defects to India after graduation while Leonard and Madeline move in together at a small research facility on Cape Cod, but they all meet up again later in New York.

This book is so much better and so much bigger than this summary--it's a story of trying to grow up (but not necessarily succeeding), of academia, of inequality between the sexes, of class and gender stratification, of the absurdities of literary theory in the face of literary substance, of the rise of greed in that decade, and so much more.

Well, I for one think it's excellent. I cannot honestly say that I *love* the book because love implies an emotional connection and I have no such connection with any of the characteres (though the academic setting is dear to me), but I admire it immensely. I think Eugenides writes characters brilliantly, and I think he does a particularly good job writing mental illness--both the frustrations of living with it and the frustrations of loving somebody with it (believe me--as someone with a beloved sibling diagnosed with schizophrenia, it's a tough call who the disease is more difficult for). The back and forth of the plot's chronology flows like memory, like you're caught up in the spell of a master story teller. It's a fine, fine novel and you can be sure that I will be paying very careful attention to Mr. Eugenides and his work from now on.
Profile Image for K.D. Absolutely.
1,820 reviews
May 1, 2013
Definitely inferior to his two earlier bestsellers, The Virgin Suicides (4 stars) and Middlesex (3 stars) but I still liked this. It is still has that tongue-in-cheek, contemporary satirist prose of Eugenides. His playful words, the effective use of settings to heighten his scenes, his easy tone and light (generally) mood are all in this book. The revelation in the end is not as shocking as Virgin and there is no overbearingly strange character like the hermaphrodites in Middlesex here. However, somethings in here reminded me of his early works like the controlling parents (similar to Virgin) and the medical case of Leonard Bankhead can be as interesting as that of Cal's case (the hermaphrodite in Middlesex). There is also the Greek characters and settings here that were one of the main flavors in the middle part of Middlesex. But do you want to know what make this positively different from the first two?
1. Too hot sex scenes. Madeleine Hanna is this liberal arts college graduate who is getting her first experiences in sex and when her boyfriend asks her what her sexual fantasy is, she says, ashamed of being seen as a deviant, it is to be pampered. However, later in the story she says the real one and when her boyfriend carries it out, she reaches orgasm bigtime. From then on, she sticks to her boyfriend no matter what other people, including her parents, say.

2. The use of classic literature that has "marriage plot" (women chasing men to get married especially during the Victorian era). While reading you can't help but notice how Madeleine's life revolves between Leonard and her bestfriend Mitchell Grammaticus. It is similar but not exactly the same as that of Isabel Archer in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady or to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, or to Helen Graham in Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Not exactly the same because in having this book, Jeffrey Eugenides creates his own kind of heroine and tries to put it side-by-side these women of classic literature.

3. Semiotics. Literature students will be able to enjoy Eugenides' use of semiotics (study of signs including symbols, metaphors, analogies) in communication. Eugenides' prose is easy to read and understand but it is tricky because if you read more carefully, he uses a lot of normal-day metaphors and analogies that can escape your attention. So you have to be careful while reading.
Overall, this book may not be as engaging as his first two earlier novels but I guess, Eugenides is one of the contemporary authors who do not rewrite themselves by coming out with a fresh piece of meat each time they prepare the dinner table.

Eugenides seems to take 9 years to write and publish a novel. Virgin was published 1993, Middlesex in 2002 and this book, The Marriage Plot in 2011. Having said this, I am sure his fans (and that includes me) will not mind waiting for another 9 years for his 4th book. It will surely worth all the wait.

He is this good!
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