There is no doubt that Eugenides is a stellar writing. His prose is captivating, his characters engaging and there is a certain sense of flow to his plot. I thoroughly enjoyed Middlesex, Eugenides’ second book – although others have criticised it for being too much like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children without the fantasy and aura that Rushdie brings to the text. I can certainly see the comparison between the two authors with regard to Middlesex; but in The Marriage Plot, there is no Rushdie to be found. Rather, what I saw here was a mix of Jonathan Franzan’s Freedom and something like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. In his review in the New York Times, William Deresiewicz calls The Marriage Plot “daylight realism”.
The book features three main characters, all university students, confused, young, perhaps naive or innocent. In some ways each of these characters is a stereotypical representation of a larger social group.
Meet Madeleine Hanna: upper class, White, privileged background, with a deep interest in Victorian literature, she is unsure about the shift that is occurring in literary theory, intrigued by the rise of modernism and its implications in how she reads her favourite authors.
Leonard Bankhead is Madeleine’s boyfriend. He is a peculiar character, brilliant but weighed down by emotional distress and dis-ease. Uncomfortable in his own skin he succumbs to mental illness and it is this that is the driving force of the novel’s plot.
In wonderful contrast to Bankhead’s distress is Mitchell Grammaticus who spends the entire novel yearning passionately for Madeleine, desperate to just soak up the aura of her presence, to bask in her glow, to brush against the air occupying the space around her. Mitchell is by far the most interesting of these characters. He is filled with questions and a deep need to understand how the world operates. He is fascinated by G-d and the workings of religion and devotion and much of the novel is spent following his exploration of divinity and divine ideas.
While I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, discovering the characters and unfurling the plot, I felt that the novel’s ending compromised by enjoyment. I was dissatisfied by what others see as a natural resolution of this type of conflict. I was irritated and disappointed by Mitchell’s revelation and frustrated that Leonard was allowed such an easy exit, to just disappear into the woods without taking responsibility for his life and those who were in it – and don’t get me started about Leonard’s mother!!
Despite what I saw as a let down at the end, I was very entertained by Eugenides’ satirical expose of theory hungry students and academia and the angst of students. Under the biting criticism, what makes this novel so sad is that it seems terribly real.