This is a review with questions. That Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest book has literary merit there is no doubt. That it will grab you from the first page and give you feelings is not in question. The Marriage Plot is a good book. Possibly great. But oh do I have questions.
The Woman Question
The first person you meet is Madeleine Hanna, the WASPy heroine with a passion for Victorian literature. She is the object of affection of the two other points in the love triangle: Mitchell Grammaticus, the man who wants to marry her, and Leonard Bankhead, her on-again, off-again boyfriend.
As I read about Madeleine, I couldn’t stop asking whether a man can write a woman with depth. Eugenides is no idiot, but he writes Madeleine as a passive woman, both professionally and sexually. She defines herself against everyone else and I couldn’t figure out if Engenides was trying to say something larger about the position of women in society and love or if he simply reached the limits of anyone imagining oneself in someone else’s shoes.
My book club couldn’t decide other, one person remarked that Madeleine is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to the two men (which we know is not a good trope). That said, Eugenides has moments that, if you are a woman, will make you laugh in recognition. Clearly he has picked up on a few things.
The Man Question
Since Madeleine is passive, it’s the men who take on the roles of manipulating the marriage plot. Will it be Leonard, the mentally ill intellectual who will win Madeleine’s heart, or Mitchell, the spiritually-inclined religious studies student. Another question asks: is this a roman Ã clef, with Leonard a loosely disguised David Foster Wallace and Mitchell a stand-in for Eugenides, the two of them competing not just for the girl, but for the literary glory? Certain people in my book club felt that Eugenides has been protesting a little bit too much lately at this criticism, but regardless of whether you think Eugenides hit a little too close to reality, the issue raises interesting questions about authorship and fiction, something that you will enjoy exploring.
The Pretentious Question
There is a lot of Derrida in this book. A lot. There is also a lot of literary name-dropping. Even the most well-read will feel a little inadeqate at the reading list that Madeleine sets for herself in her literary pursuits. Is Eugenides making fun of all of this brainy stuff or does he love it? As someone who balances between philosophical inquiry from within and outside of the academy, I tend to think that Eugenides feels much the same as I do, in love with authors and the writers who cover them, but also just wanting to write and read literature for literature’s sake. Of all things in the novel, I sympathised with this the most.
Is it worth a read?
Oh yes. In addition to raising a few questions, it is also just a fine read. Eugenides captures the same spirit of will they, won’t they that Jane Austen so deftly explored. It’s a comedy of manners but also a comment on the tragedy of what happens when we all just want to be married.