I picked up Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot about three months ago and only finished it this past week. I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t expect every good book to grab me, but I do expect not to be outright bored.
My real frustration with The Marriage Plot wasn’t the fact that it attempted to rival Virginia Woolf in its painfully thorough exploration of the inner self, though that didn’t help, but rather that it boasted a female lead who still wound up being a minor character in her own story.
The essential premise is that Madeleine Hanna, gorgeous, sweet, smart, talented and somewhat starry-eyed English major, is graduating from university with plans to attend grad school. She just finished her Honors thesis on the marriage plot in a number of 19th Century works and wants to go off and be a great big Victorianist when she grows up.
As someone who wrote her Honors thesis on 19th Century literature, surely I must have felt some kinship toward Madeleine. Except that Madeleine’s thesis sounded absurd and despite the fact that her paper (spanning half-a-dozen incredibly important works in under 30 pages) was both obvious and unoriginal, she is clearly a great academic genius — the kind of genius who, after claiming to be a huge Jane Austen fan and writing a paper on her for an Austen publication, doesn’t find out that Austen isn’t even from the Victorian period until she’s at a conference with actual Victorianists. But nevermind. I’m sure she’ll be fine.
I did my thesis on Herman Melville, by the way, and just balancing three works was a nightmare. My advice to any English majors still in university and thinking of doing an Honors project is this: keep it to one work and save yourself months of grief. And please keep any Melville-bashing out of the comments. He’s great and you’re the one who’s boring.
In any event, our genius heroine’s lack of fact-checking aside, we’re lead to believe that this story is going to be about Madeleine’s journey toward grad school — taking the GRE, picking schools, writing bad papers, etc. Instead, Eugenides thought he would be clever and set up a modern marriage plot. You see, Hanna is at a crossroads — will she choose her manic-depressive sexy ex who’s a bit of an asshole, or the friend she’s always loved but, you know, not like that.
And here’s where I get annoyed. Hanna, our lead — the woman supposedly choosing between these two men — is stuck trailing her manic-depressive boyfriend to his graduate school in the middle of nowhere while her friend goes off to India. So her two love interests both get to do something interesting while she wallows in her thoughts and folds laundry. And while both men (we get their perspectives as well, because of course we do) talk and talk about how great Hanna is, it’s their lives that are the real foci.
So not only does Madeleine not sound like a believable scholar, Eugenides doesn’t even think he has enough story to stay with Madeleine entirely, and instead gives us Leonard and Mitchell’s accounts which are, for the most part, relatively Madeleine-free (apart from the occasional battle of their innermost souls when they’re not busy doing more important things).
The ending — which I won’t spoil — attempts to make a last-second feminist move, a break from the traditional “marriage plot,” but what’s fantastically ironic about even this attempt at casting off gender or relationship norms is that the feminist move is made by one of the men and imposed on Madeleine.
In short, I didn’t like it and I definitely don’t recommend it. But hell — if a man tells you to read it, you certainly ought to. Now I’ll just cuddle up with some good Renaissance literature like The Decameron and fold some laundry.