Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE MARRIAGE PLOT

“She may have looked normal on the outside, but once you’d seen her handwriting you knew she was deliciously complicated inside.”

The reading copy I received of THE MARRIAGE PLOT describes it as “the most anticipated novel of the year”. For me it has been the most anticipated novel for nine years. I count MIDDLESEX in my top 3 books of all-time and have been eagerly awaiting Eugenides’ next novel. And, to my enormous relief, the anticipation didn’t let me down.

For me MIDDLESEX is one of those novels that when I read something else wonderful I think “was it as good as MIDDLESEX?” What I love about the MIDDLESEX is that on the surface it is a family saga where the youngest of three generations, Cal, is tracing their family’s story and retelling how their grandparents fled from their town on the Greek/Turkish border and built a new life in America. But it is so much more than that as it explores gender and identity issues in a fascinating and original way. THE VIRGIN SUICIDES is also another blackly funny and deeply moving novel about the tragedy of adolescence.

The title of Eugenides’ new novel comes from a literary term describing novels of the 18th and 19th centuries where the plot is driven by the need for a character to get married for reasons other than love. Eugenides wanted to attempt a modern take on the ‘marriage plot’ while at the same time wondering if in a world of divorce and pre-nuptial agreements whether it could still exist.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT centres on an unusual love triangle. The focal point both of the novel and the triangle (I think triangle is the wrong metaphor now but I will stick with it!) is Madeleine, an English Major at Brown University. We also meet Mitchell, a Religious Studies Major, who fell instantly in love with Madeleine the first day he met her and secretly believes he will marry her one day. Completing the triangle is Leonard, a character that would not be out-of-place in a Richard Yates novel. The first half of the novel is set at the university on Graduation Day as each character reflects on their three years at college. The college part of the novel reminds me a lot of Donna Tartt and Jonathan Lethem.

I think this is one of the best love stories I have ever read. It is utterly un-soppy and is certainly unromantic, especially as Madeleine and Leonard deconstruct love during a course on semiotics, however Mitchell’s unrequited love balances the equation nicely. As with MIDDLESEX the ‘marriage plot’ (if there really is one) is the surface to a much richer and fuller exploration of not only love and relationships but spirituality and madness as well as individualism and companionship.

I made a big call in January this year that THE TIGER’S WIFE would be my book of the year for 2011; half hoping I could find a book even better. THE MARRIAGE PLOT has come very close to grabbing top spot.

Below is a great video of Jeffrey Eugenides speaking at BEA 2011 about ‘the marriage plot’ and the evolution of THE MARRIAGE PLOT


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