If you’ve ever read a book by Jeffrey Eugenides, you will probably agree with me when I say he’s a great writer. Phenomenal, in fact. But with that being said, I’ve never felt attached to the characters in his first two works, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. I mean, you’re not exactly supposed to in Suicides, but still—I never found myself falling in love with his work, despite the great writing. That is until this wonderful, amazing book.
The Marriage Plot is about three wayward 20-something college graduates who, quite simply, experience the profound effects of love in the 1980s. Madeleine, an English graduate writing her thesis on the Victorian literary device “the marriage plot,” doesn’t know how to turn her love for literature into a career, and finds herself even more lost in the ways of love. She falls for the charismatic Leonard, a science major who, despite his intellect, finds himself on a path toward self-destruction. And finally, there is Mitchell, the straight-laced religious studies major who embarks on an extended, spiritual journey around the globe, from France to India, while clinging to his unrequited love for Madeleine. This book follows these three characters as they graduate, travel the world, find jobs, fall ill, help each other heal, and figure out this tricky thing called love.
I think the real reason I found myself thoroughly enjoying this book is because I could identify with the characters. It was only six years ago that I graduated from college. (Wow, has it been that long?) I remember the classes that bored me, and the classes that left an everlasting impression. I remember sitting around with my classmates, sharing ideas, goals and passions. I remember seeing that special boy for the first time, not knowing he would go on to change my life. I remember walking down the Campanile hill, realizing that it was time for me to choose my path in life, and that my choices were endless.
Eugenides’ characters are not perfect. They make plenty of mistakes. But Eugenides does an excellent job of allowing the reader inside their minds to understand their actions. As he jumps back and forth through time, perspectives constantly switching, he tells the complete story, and reminds us what it’s like to be at that place in your life. I was enchanted.
Some spoilers ahead
• Favorite quote: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” –François de La Rochefoucauld
• Second favorite quote: “She became an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.”
• Setting this novel in the Reagan years was a brilliant choice. This was a decade that was met with a dramatic shift in how women saw themselves—as someone who could choose a career rather than a husband and 2.5 kids. Madeleine is a woman of the 80s and she fancies herself a feminist. In fact, her thesis is a deconstruction of “the marriage plot,” the popular storyline that insists the happy ending for its heroine is marriage. But despite her desire to go along with this shift, the truth is that she secretly yearns for the traditional husband, and wishes Leonard would just conform right along with her. This is a struggle many women continue to face today: career or family?
• This novel felt especially timely, as Eugenides reveals Leonard’s deep and darkening manic depression. The inability for those around him (his mother, especially) to understand that he wasn’t simply “down in the dumps” felt all too relatable. Although this was set in the 80s, it’s surprising how people today still truly don’t understand this unbearable disease.
• With that being said, I couldn’t stop laughing at the image of Leonard running all over Paris in a cape.
• I absolutely loved the spiritual journey that Mitchell underwent. I’ve always found religious studies fascinating. His final decision to join the Quakers felt like a perfect fit. Plus, I can absolutely relate to this sentiment of his: I love religion, but not necessarily religious people.