The Book Club is a regular feature in which Full Stop editors and guests discuss a book in depth over the course of the week. This time we’re reading The Marriage Plot, a new novel by Jeffrey Eugenides and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. The Marriage Plot hits the shelves tomorrow – we invite you to pick up a copy from your local bookstore and read along with us. Check back every day this week for more posts from our editors.
ALEX SHEPHARD, FULL STOP EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
I’d like to start by welcoming Michael Schaub, a very dear, very talented friend, to our Book Club discussion. Hi Michael!
I’ve been looking forward to this discussion for a long time, not only because we all seem to have had fairly different reactions to the book, but because the conversations I’ve had with you all have touched on a disparate set of compelling questions. That’s not terribly surprising, considering that there’s so much going on in The Marriage Plot – it’s messy (or “sprawling”), sometimes to its credit, often to its detriment.
When I reviewed the novel for BEA, I devoted a decent portion of a 400 word piece to the novel’s depiction of the wilderness that is post-graduate life:
“The timely economic instability is just one of the many uncertainties that the characters face as they transition from a period of focused ambition to one defined by questions: not just where will you live and what will you do, but who you are, who you want to be, and who you want to be with. Though these questions are not confined to post-graduate life, Eugenides understands the vulnerability of this period, when they are all unleashed at once.”
That review was a rushed job – I had 72 hours to read and review the book, enough time to inhale the book, but not nearly enough to digest it. I praised Eugenides for transforming “familiar insecurities, frustrations, and transformations into the most convincing and authentic portrait of post-graduate life in recent memory.” Now that I’ve had time to process the novel, I still think that’s true. The book is essentially structured around the existential questions that define “postgraduate” life – am I wasting my life? How do you live a meaningful, fulfilling life, anyway? What does it mean to be a good person? – and every one of the book’s loose wires – semiotics; genetics; mysticism; mental illness; love; the eighteenth and nineteenth century novel; the nuclear family; the culture wars – float around those questions. And I think Eugenides does an incredible job of articulating the emptiness and confusion that’s defined much of my botched attempt at adulthood.
That being said, reading The Marriage Plot for a second time, many of those loose wires feel very loose indeed, each hitting on those central questions, but often feeling curiously disconnected from one another. Certainly there should be a degree of messiness in a novel about this incredibly messy period of life — but much of The Marriage Plot feels messy in the way novels can be messy, not in the way that life is. (Similarly, Eugenides is playing off of the “marriage plot,” which, in its early phase at least, resolved them with marriage. While I’m far from an expert on the device, I’m very interested in how you think he adapts it to the “post-1968” world/novel.) In short: the characters and their struggles feel very real to me, but so much of the novel (especially the final third) feels forced and disjointed.
AMANDA SHUBERT, FULL STOP FEATURES EDITOR:
I think Alex makes a good point that the struggles of the characters feel real while the novel itself feels disjointed. And though I think I was less charmed by the characters than you, Alex, I admit it felt strange and almost feverish one year out of college to read about college seniors and recent graduates falling in love, breaking up, reading Barthes, writing honors projects, looking for jobs and applying to graduate school in the middle of a recession. Strange and feverish enough that I’ll leave it to someone else to discuss the fun house mirror image of the editors’ Oberlin College experience, and offer a few somewhat disjointed thoughts on the marriage plot in The Marriage Plot.
First of all, it’s important to know that the title of the novel registers three interlocking meanings, each associated with one of the three protagonists, all of whom graduate from Brown University in 1982 when the novel begins: Madeleine Hanna, for whom the title refers to the literary convention of the marriage plot, which she studies for her senior thesis in English; Leonard Bankhead, who schemes to marry Madeleine, his girlfriend, as the elegant solution to his financial and emotional problems; and Mitchell Grammaticus, the brilliant Religion major whose unrequited love for Madeleine sends him searching for the answers to the mysteries of love and loneliness. Mitchell is Eugenides’ alter ego—there’s some sense at the end of the book that The Marriage Plot is Mitchell’s novel. It’s the moment when he gives a novelistic summary for Madeleine of the marriage plot in The Marriage Plot—essentially, what has happened to the three characters since the novel began and how they decide to sort out their lives:
“From the books you read for your thesis, and for your article—the Austen and the James and everything—was there any novel where the heroine gets married to the wrong guy and then realizes it, and then the other suitor shows up, some guy whose always been in love with her, and then they get together, but finally the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life. And so finally the guy doesn’t propose at all, even though he still loves her? Is there any book that ends like that?”
“No,” Madeleine said. “I don’t think there’s one like that.”
“But do you think that would be good? As an ending?”
Madeleine thinks that would be just fine. And the novel comes to the not very startling conclusion that the marriage plot in the age of feminism, post-structuralism and late capitalism fails to effect romantic or sexual closure. Instead, it brings its characters to a point of alienation and, if they’re lucky, like Madeleine, independence.
Madeleine’s foiled marriage plot is the source of sexual, emotional and intellectual coming of age. The Victorian novel is actually full of these sentimental educations that proceed from failed marriages or affairs. Jane Eyre has hers when she walks out on Rochester after discovering, at their wedding, that he has a secret wife. (Another marriage plot line gone wrong and shut up in the attic.) Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, comes of age through her unhappy marriage to the older, cerebral Casaubon; the multi-couple marriage plot comes to a close when she re-marries.
The Marriage Plot occasionally replicates or riffs on ideas from these novels, but it doesn’t engage them in any really exciting or substantive way. (And this is in spite of a rather funny and promising collision of the Victorian novel with some of the more obtuse French semioticians in the first third of the novel, which takes place at Brown). The novel’s inquiry into the Victorian marriage plot just about begins and end with the litany of books, the Edith Wharton and the Henry James, on Madeleine Hanna’s shelf. (“To start with, look at all the books,” the novel opens.) In fact, without the title and the framing device of Madeline’s bookshelf at the beginning and Mitchell’s plot summary at the end, you could forget this is supposed to be a book about the marriage plot.