Because one of Jeffrey Eugenides’ previous novels, the 2003 Middlesex, won a Pulitzer Prize, readers will approach this latest book with high expectations. The Marriage Plot not only exceeds our anticipations, it is arguably a better novel than Middlesex. Highly dramatic but never sentimental, The Marriage Plot eschews fantasy, grounding itself in reality throughout.
The narrative opens in 1982 on graduation day at Brown University, and hinges on a love triangle formed by three of the graduates. Mitchell Grammaticus from Grosse Point, Michigan, loves Madeleine Hanna from Prettybrook, New Jersey. Madeleine loves Leonard Bankhead from Portland, Oregon.
Madeleine’s parents arrive for the big event and suggest beginning the day with a hearty restaurant breakfast. Extremely hung over, Madeleine responds to their well-meant enthusiasms with monosyllables. As it turns out, two-thirds of the triangle fails to attend the commencement ceremony. For the past week, unbeknownst to Madeleine, Leonard has been hospitalized in the psychiatric ward of an off-campus hospital. Less than one hour before the graduation march begins, Madeleine learns for the first time not only of her boyfriend’s incarceration, but also of the fact that he had been diagnosed with manic depression in his freshman year. Giving no thought whatsoever to her parents or to abandoning her graduation, she hurries to the hospital to be with Leonard.
The novel’s title, The Marriage Plot, is apt on so many levels. In her junior year Madeleine took an honors seminar, “The Marriage Plot: Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot and James.” She finds consolation in the elegant prose of Roland Barthes, a French literary critic and philosopher. Barthes apparently “cast a cold eye on any romantic enterprise,” like marriage. One of Mitchell’s life goals – in addition to becoming a saint – is to marry Madeleine. Madeleine in turn, at least for a time, wants nothing more than to marry Leonard.
Eugenides expertly moves his gripping tale forward while seamlessly blending in fascinating back-story. Mitchell’s connection with Madeleine – “his long, aspirational, sporadically promising yet frustrating relationship” – began when the two met at a toga party during freshman orientation. On graduation morning Madeleine’s mother invites Mitchell to join the Hannas at breakfast. Afterwards, frustrated because he worries the she is out of his league, Mitchell lashes out at Madeleine, saying sarcastically to her:
“Our wonderful friendship! Our ‘friendship’ isn’t a real friendship because it only works on your terms. You set the rules, Madeleine. If you decide you don’t want to talk to me for three months, we don’t talk. Then you decide you do want to talk to me because you need me to entertain your parents – and now we’re talking again.”
It was not until the spring of her senior year that Madeleine first met Leonard, a charismatic loner from Oregon. He seldom shaved, chewed tobacco, and smoked cigarettes, but was “cleaner and more pleasant than [Madeleine] expected.” Most important, he said brilliant things.
Mitchell takes Madeleine’s affection for Leonard in stride. “She needed to get guys like him out of her system,” Eugenides notes, “She needed to grow up, as Mitchell does, too, before they could get together.” The author continues, relating that Mitchell’s love for Madeline “was pure and earthshakingly significant…Madeleine had been putting Mitchell off for so long that her refusals [had become] boiler plate.” Over and over in his mind, Mitchell examined these refusals, looking for possible loopholes or buried clauses of real significance.
Madeleine is an utterly credible character, one who is realistically shaped by events and relationships. And she, in turn impacts events and relationships. Clearly, the Madeleine we read about at the novel’s conclusion is not the floundering, insecure college student.
She had become an English Major “for the purest and dullest of reasons: she liked to read.” Her favorite books are those which take her places she can’t go herself. Among the Brown student body a nihilistic, post-punk mindset prevails, “a sensibility that Madeleine herself didn’t understand but was perfectly happy to scandalize her parents by pretending that she did.” Eugenides describes her as a failed bohemian who dressed like Jackie Kennedy.
Madeleine’s father, Alton Hanna, who had been the president of a small Eastern college, is a practical man who prudently weighs consequences before taking any action. He forgives his daughter for her myriad bad choices. Madeleine’s mother, Phyllida, is a wonderful, larger-than-life character and evidence of Eugenides’ talent for characterization. “Phyllida,” he relates, “was all hairdo and handbag, full of high-pitched interrogatives.” He attributes to her an astonishing Brahmin accent, intelligence and a sense of humor. Phyllida’s love for her daughter – even in the face of Madeleine’s choice of the flawed Leonard – is immeasurable.
We learn that a few weeks prior to graduation Madeleine had broken up with Leonard, a fact she keeps hidden from her parents. On a night spent with Leonard, Madeleine was overcome with affection for him, and for the first time, told him that she loves him. Leonard rebuffed her, quoting Barthes to the effect that once an avowal of love has been made, it has no meaning whatsoever. Mortified, she stormed out of his apartment, vowing never to speak to him again.
“After you left,” Leonard later tells Madeleine, “I lay down on my bed and didn’t get up for a week. I just lay there thinking how I’d sabotaged the best chance I ever had to be happy…the best chance to be with someone smart, beautiful and sane.”
But all is forgiven when she learns of his illness and hospitalization. He is released after three weeks, and at the end of the summer he and Madeleine move to Pilgrim Lake, Massachusetts, where Leonard had been awarded a prestigious research fellowship at a biology laboratory.
Even before the move, Leonard begins to feel socially inferior to Madeleine. Her devotion to tennis, for example, makes him squirm. In a masterful paragraph Eugenides recounts:
“There was something about tennis – its aristocratic rituals, the prim silence it enforced on its spectators, the pretentious insistence on saying ‘love’ for zero and ‘deuce’ for tied, the exclusivity of the court itself where only two people were allowed to move freely, the palace-guard ritual of the linesmen, and the slavish scurrying of the ball boys – that made it clearly a reproachable pastime. That Leonard couldn’t say this to Madeleine without making her angry suggested the depth of the social chasm between them.”
Sadly, Leonard’s only goal in the laboratory is to conceal his illness. Before long a psychiatrist prescribes massive doses of Lithium that deplete his energy. As the months pass his erratic behavior demonstrates that the manic dimension of his manic depression is every bit as dangerous as the depression itself. He decides to take matters into his own hands and drastically reduces the amount of medication he has been prescribed. Undaunted by Leonard’s crazyiness, Madeleine marries him. She wants to prove to him beyond a doubt, her belief in his eventual recovery. The two end up living with her parents because they have no other options. Holding down a job is out-of-the-question for him, and Madeleine must watch him night and day. Understandably, after serving as Leonard’s caretaker for more than a year, Madeleine realizes that she no longer loves him. And it is not just his illness that causes her disaffection. Irrevocably, the marked differences in their upbringings have come between them. They no longer have the underpinning of the democratic leveling process of college. Put simply, he is not part of her social milieu.
Meanwhile, Mitchell has traveled to India, spending three weeks in Calcutta. Naively, he is seeking “sainthood or the ultimate reality.” He writes to Madeleine warning her, “Don’t marry that guy. Don’t do it, Mad. Just don’t.” When he returns to the U.S. and learns of her marriage he is filled with self-hate. Eugenides depicts his misery:
“I’m just a piece of sh… I never had a chance. It’s laughable. Look at me. Just look. Ugly bald-headed crazy religious stupid piece of SH..!” (He had had his head shaved in India.)…He despised himself. He decided that his believing that Madeleine would marry him stemmed from the same credulity that had led him to think that he could lead a saintly life, tending the sick and dying in Calcutta.”
The novel’s ending is not what we had expected. It is at the same time surprising and credible. Among his many capabilities, Eugenides clearly has a gift for foreshadowing events that never take place. Each member of the love triangle has irrevocably changed. On the last page, as he and Madeleine discuss endings in classic works of fiction, Mitchell experiences a transformation. Eugenides informs us: “[Mitchell] looked at Madeleine. She wasn’t so special, maybe. She was his ideal, but an early concept of it, and he would get over it in time.”