In the petri dish of a campus environment, 18th-century feminist literature, philosophy, religious studies and other intellectual pursuits seem valid, disciplines to build careers around. It is a time-out from reality that awaits in varying degrees, depending upon ambition, opportunity, and economic status. Madeleine Hanna has the luxury of her family’s money to cushion her future, the object of her affection, the enigmatic Leonard Bankhead, already practicing the pared-down lifestyle of the financially insecure, his brilliant mind the only harbinger of a bright future, a ticket to success. The third wheel in the novel is Mitchell Grammaticus, a student of religion with aspirations of good acts in the world, likely India, and hopelessly enamored of Madeleine even as he sees her slip into enchantment with Leonard.
It is the author’s taskand his conceitto make us care about these people and the infinite, mind-numbing details of their senior year at Brown University in Rhode Island. The journey begun on campus spirals into the following years, Madeleine and Leonard eventually ensconced at a remote biology lab on Cape Cod. In Europe, Mitchell wends his way toward India and Mother Theresa. In alternating chapters, Madeleine’s connection to each man’s psyche acts as the glue to the narrative, weighted by emotions mired in intellectual sophistry, the theme of the literary “Marriage Plot” underpinning Eugenides’ contention that, contrary to common opinion, new endings may yet be written in a more progressive society.
Smoke and mirrors, pretension and artifice suck the joy from young lives enmeshed in chronic self-examination. Feminism crackles with outrage, America has not yet pledged to another endless war; a generation of college students stand oblivious to the hardships the future will bring. But it is impossible to invest in any of these characters, or to fathom why Eugenides might seek answers in the esoterica of Jane Austen and George Eliot’s narratives, the ‘80s an era of fraternities and patriarchy, of polite politics soon to be rendered obsolete by big money and entrenched special interests. Mitchell’s journey, both physical and emotional, is just tedious, Madeleine’s perhaps more predictable (and occasionally comprehensible), Leonard’s a harbinger of real-world issues and the frustrations of negotiating from a position of weakness.
Any fragments of maturity are hard-won in Eugenides’ love affair with higher education on the East Coast, the ‘80s, and a misplaced nostalgia for simpler times when ideas freely incubate without dire consequences for youthful mistakes. Overall, The Marriage Plot is stifling, exhausting, and only vaguely suggestive that any of these people will enjoy the fruits of their college preparations. While Madeleine wallows in the pretensions of classic romantic literature and Mitchell seeks gratification in spiritual endeavors, poor Leonard, he of little funds, suffers the truly ignominious fatetethered to the depression that has dogged him since college, once camouflaged by the accoutrements of eccentricity but painfully exposed to the critical judgment of medical professionals and their cornucopia of mood stabilizers. The end is unsurprising: “The way of true love never works out, except at the end of an English novel.”