It has to be tough as an author to write another novel after publishing one of the best reviewed and most awarded novels of our time. I feel for Jeffrey Eugenides. His 2003 masterpiece Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize, was named the best book of the year by The Los Angeles Times, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was an Oprah selection, and, frankly, is one of my favorite novels ever. No wonder it took eight years to follow-up with the much-anticipated The Marriage Plot.
The book was destined to be a let down, and I’m sorry to say it is indeed just an average novel. I enjoyed The Marriage Plot, but it wasn’t great. The novel is set in the early 80s at Brown University where Eugenides himself went to college. In fact, one of the lead characters (Mitchell Grammaticus) was of Greek descent and hailed from Michigan (like Eugenides) so one can’t help but wonder how much of Mitchell is based on the author. The story is a sort of collegiate love triangle between Mitchell, the brilliant but manic Leonard Bankhead and the beautiful Madeleine Hanna. Both Mitchell and Leonard vie for Madeleine’s heart but Madeleine is drawn to Leonard. The story takes some twists and turns, but ultimately the relationships between these characters are doomed. I suppose it should come as no surprise to Eugenides’ fans that happy endings are hard to come by in The Marriage Plot given his first novel (The Virgin Suicides) was about a group of young sisters who one-by-one kill themselves. And of course Middlesex is centered around a person born into a body with both male and female junk. Eugenides is certainly no typical romantic.
The Marriage Plot is also the title of Madeleine’s senior thesis, which we can assume from her studies and love for Victorian-era literature means she is a romantic. Unfortunately for her, Leonard is not and even if Mitchell was he doesn’t do it for her the way the brooding and tortured Leonard does. My trouble with story is I didn’t know who to root for. I disliked both Leonard and Mitchell, and truthfully Madeleine struck me as a drama queen herself. With nobody to cheer on, I lost interest in the love triangle and instead spent my mental energy on the subplots of Leonard’s mania and Mitchell’s religious quest across Europe. From that angle the story is definitely a coming-of-age novel and without giving anything away all three characters do grow throughout the story and eventually “find” themselves (at least we know Madeleine and Mitchell do since Eugenides kind of leaves Leonard’s issues hanging in the wind).
The Marriage Plot is getting pretty good literary reviews, including one from The New York Times and others from NPR and The Los Angeles Times. And Eugenides has already cemented himself among the best of his generation along with the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon. Again, I liked The Marriage Plot but didn’t love it.