I’m currently about halfway through Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel, The Marriage Plot, and am finding it fascinating and very enjoyable. Set in America in the early 80s, it is the story of three university students who become involved in a love triangle. The novel, which continues to follow the students during the year after they graduate, feels very vital and realistic, and, perhaps mainly because the writing is so good, I can strongly relate to some of the characters’ experiences.
Madeleine is an English major working on a thesis about marriage in the nineteenth century novel. Her professor argues that, in the twentieth century, marriage is no longer such a compelling plot device, that sexual liberation, divorce and women’s financial independence mean the choices someone makes in marriage don’t have the same urgency as they did in the novels of Henry James or Jane Austen. This is an appropriate background for a novel that seems (so far) to be about modern relationships. The main characters in this novel are preoccupied with two things, love and ideas, which is a wonderful mixture of subjects to read about. And the novel seems to suggest that the way the characters think about relationships can’t be separated from their intellectual interests or the ways they look at the world in general. Books (and films and music to some extent) are very important to them. They begin to find out what they think and feel about life through reading and studying, and the ideas they discover at college, during this tumultuous period of life, change them.
As I studied English at university, some of the early parts of the book which talk about Madeleine’s experiences as a student made me laugh. For example:
That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical – because they weren’t musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories.
Right up through her third year at college, Madeleine kept wholesomely taking courses like Victorian Fantasy: From Phantastes to The Water Babies, but by senior year she could no longer ignore the contrast between the hard-up, blinky people in her Beowulf seminar and the hipsters down the hall reading Maurice Blanchot.
I am also enjoying reading about Mitchell, a theology student, who is in love with Madeleine. The book describes how, despite not having a religious background, he becomes fascinated by the subject of mystical experience. I like the way the book takes Mitchell’s exploration of religious and philosophical questions seriously. It also creates a vivid picture of some of the other aspects of being a student, such as drunken parties, hangovers, breakdowns, impoverished attempts to travel, and the way people befriend, dislike, and try to impress each other in the very intense atmosphere of university.
One of the early scenes in The Marriage Plot describes a discussion in Madeleine’s semiotics seminar, in which one student argues that books are always about other books – they are responding to a literary tradition, trying to experiment and create something new. Madeleine thinks this comment contains some insight but is also depressing and she wishes it wasn’t true. She loves reading a traditional novel because ‘there was going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world’ and she finds comfort in discovering through literature that she is not alone. I think The Marriage Plot, from what I’ve read so far, seems to be a combination of these two aspects of literature. It is a book about books and literary questions, full of references to what Madeleine and Mitchell are reading that make me want to go out and read almost every title it mentions. In particular, I am very interested in reading A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes, a book which Madeleine becomes obsessed with because it seems to mirror her own situation, even though the book is supposed to be a deconstruction of romantic love. But as much as it is about books, The Marriage Plot also seems to be an attempt to write a traditional nineteenth-century-style novel, long and detailed, full of realistic characters created with affection, who might make you recognise your own life in its pages.
This is the first time I’ve written about a book when I haven’t finished it yet! Because I’m enjoying it so much, I felt I had to write my first impressions. I hope I like the remaining half just as much. I might report back when I’ve finished…