The Marriage Plot

1/15/12 When the Fall 2011 lists came out and I saw the Jeffrey Eugenides had a new novel, I was all “ooo, that.” Then came the so-so reviews, and my interest flagged a bit. Still, a couple weeks ago I downloaded it to my iPad, and, wow, those negative reviews? Totally wrong. First a warning: The Marriage Plot is an “intellectual” novel. There are lots of references to philosophers and writers that were in vogue in the 1980s, when the action takes place. Also, the protagonists are students at Brown University. So we have that. Well, yeah, I read most of the stuff that Madeleine and Mitchell and Leonard drone on and on about, including Roland Barthes. I did get my Ph.D. in English just when everyone at Yale was paying more attention to Derrida and Lacan than to the words writers were putting on the page. Luckily, I was at Columbia, and I could get away with writing a dissertation that totally skirted the semioticians, structuralists and the deconstructionists and just talked about the stories on the page (the Arthurian romances that had originally been inked onto vellum). So in many ways, this trio and their friends are living my worst nightmare, and I found Eugenides’ dissection of that era’s literary wobbly house of cards amusing — and painful. I wouldn’t want to have to read that kind of criticism again; I wouldn’t want to be a graduate student again; I wouldn’t want to suffer love the way these young people do. Suffer they do, but no more than the characters in a Jane Austen novel. Except in a Jane Austen novel, as Madeleine’s senior thesis points out, it’s all about getting married in the end. Not so here in a world where bi-polar disorder was still treated with lithium and homosexuality regarded as not quite normal. Again, it is the 1980s. Garth Risk Hallberg’s essay in today’s New York Times, Why Write Novels at All,” touches on an issue relevant to this novel and to baby boomer writers and readers: just who are these Gen X people in the novel. They’re too young to be us, too old to be our children. Reading this book is a bit like visiting the zoo and watching some species that resembles us but isn’t quite us. Don’t expect to be gripped by this novel. But do expect to be moved. And a little heartbroken. (Clicking on the book cover will take you to the Barnes & Noble site.)