On holiday in Lisbon last week I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ excellent ‘The Marriage Plot’, a breezy, thoughtful rumination on changing times and destinies; the marriage novel of the 18th and 19th centuries told afresh in the 1980s, with pre-nups, divorces, and post-modernism thrown in. It was a very good read. Despite his being widely admired, I’d not read either of Eugenides previous books, and came to this relatively fresh, without the burden of having read much contemporary US fiction in recent years, either (I’ll come back when they start writing shorter novels again).
A good writer can rarely go wrong with a campus novel, and that’s exactly how ‘The Marriage Plot’ starts out; we observe three young undergraduates who seem to immerse themselves in pretty much the typical university experience, with the exception that their thirst for knowledge (and limitless appetite for semiotics) felt a little romanticised (or perhaps Eugenides really was that boring at university). The Barthes quotes aside, it’s a familiar story; the vacillating relationship between 3 people; the naive, romantic lead (Madeleine Hanna), the brilliant hunk (Leonard Bankhead) and the introverted, love-struck friend (Mitchell Grammaticus).
The novel really takes off, however, when the three graduate and begin to negotiate those notoriously horrible post-university years. It’s a trite and oft-repeated observation that people go to university to ‘find themselves’, but the reverse, is true – university is what one does while putting the revelations off. It’s when you’re out, directionless and removed, that the real self-discovery takes place, and so it is for our uncertain, tentative leads. Leonard is forced to face his severe depression; Mitchell his spiritual yearning. And Madeleine slowly learns to define herself as her own person – as a Victorianist (this is a novel studded with literary references) and as a woman. It’s well observed stuff, and Leonard’s manic depression feels extraordinarily well described.
It’s not without its flaws; Madeleine’s literary heroines were so remarkable not because of the ingenious ways in which they resolved their own marriage plots, but because they drew marvellously detailed, revelatory portraits of their young leads. We never quite get to know Madeleine, and Mitchell’s travels are largely fruitless. Perhaps this is deliberate; Eugenides seems to contend that the modern marriage – and perhaps the modern life – can never mean as much when all is no longer at stake; and so there is drifting, irony and indecisiveness where in Austen there is purpose, razor sharp satire and principle. Mistakes are still painful, but perhaps less decisive.
None of that prevents ‘The Marriage Plot’ from being a great coming of age novel, and very readable indeed. Eugenides employs a largely conventional style, with the exception of a few judicious liberties with the timeline, and he knows how to drive the reader forward. I was, personally, just a little disappointed with the ending, despite it making sense in a literary context. Nevertheless, it was a great read, and had one glorious side effect for which I thank it – it made me want to go back to a few literary classics I’d not really considered re-reading (including some stuff I hated at the time). I won’t be reaching for Roland Barthes any time soon, but love of literature bleeds from the pages of this excellent book, and I feel a bit infected.