Recap: It’s 1982, and three young adults have just graduated from Brown University. They are now entering the “real world.” The Marriage Plot is told in sections split up between these three main characters. It starts on graduation day and then takes us backward through their college experiences, and forward into the year after graduation.
There’s Madeleine, the heroine and Victorian literature enthusiast. She’s beautiful, smart, and moves in with her boyfriend, Leonard, after college. Leonard is a brilliant, handsome guy, studying science under a fellowship at a lab on the Cape. Leonard’s brilliance becomes more and more shadowed, however, by his severe case of manic depression. There’s also Mitchell, Madeleine’s close friend, who has been in love with her for years. Constantly pining for Madeleine, Mitchell sets out on a post-grad journey across Europe and Asia, as he considers attending grad school for religion and tries to define his own religious beliefs.
Analysis: The novel’s title itself, The Marriage Plot, makes it seem like this is a book about love. But this is not a story about love. This is a coming-of-age story. Maybe it was my poor reading, but the whole time I kept wondering “Who will Madeleine end up with?” It wasn’t until the conclusion that I realized a) that’s not the point of the story and b) it’s obvious from the beginning that only one ending makes sense.
This “obvious” ending is clear because of the direct parallels author Jeffrey Eugenides makes between The Marriage Plot and great literary pieces of our time. Throughout the novel, Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell often reference authors like Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, and James Joyce, and their works. The references are heavy in the beginning of the novel, during the characters’ pretentious college years. As they continue to pop up throughout the book, it becomes clear that these classic stories influence Eugenides’ own storytelling.
I am by no means an expert in classic literature, but here are a few examples of what I mean. In Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the characters do not end up with the ones they love; they often end up quite sad. Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a coming-of-age story about a man who tries to identify his religious beliefs. Knowing how these stories end, it’s possible to predict how The Marriage Plot will end. Eugenides therefore not only mentions these works in his novel, but borrows plotlines directly from them.
If you’re a literature enthusiast, you’ll understand the book well. If you’re not, it’s still worth a read for its realistic tales of college life and the difficult period afterward.
MVP: Mitchell. He’s the nerdy loner you root for throughout the book. Madeleine gets the most attention and pages in the book, but is somehow the least developed character. The story about Mitchell’s religious journey is virtually discarded at the end of the novel, but his overall arc is still the most interesting of all the characters.