I came to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Marriage Plot somewhat disappointed with his previous novel Middlesex which no matter how brilliantly it was written, promised one thing and then failed to deliver.
It has to do with his style of writing, I suppose. Eugenides writes backwards. He presents a beautifully written scene, a believable and slightly perfectly flawed character or two, and then adds the depth and the detail through a lot of backstory but it’s all written so well that it’s hard to tell where the cracks in time appear.
In The Marriage Plot, one third of the book had gone by before I realised we were still only on the first day which is where we started. Madeline, one of our protagonists, wakes up a lot worse for wear on her graduation day, from Brown University, with her parents ringing the doorbell so as to take her out for a celebratory breakfast.
She has broken up with her boyfriend Leonard and outside the cafe, in which she and her parents end up, sits her friend Mitchell Grammaticus, who is no longer her friend but he pretends for a while to please her parents. These are the main characters and this is the starting point. We find out how they got here and where they end up.
Leonard is enigmatic, charismatic and all set to be a research fellow over summer. Madeline is not sure what to do next but is investigating the marriage plot, what happens to women after marriage, in Victorian fiction and Mitchell is trying to find some sort of religious truth which will give his life some meaning.
The time is the early 1980s but luckily Eugenides does not use this as an opportunity to revisit pop culture. The timing, instead, is useful as a backdrop to social conditions and it’s almost a bit of a shock how much feminism has changed the way we live in just three decades. Of course, these characters have parents who were raised in the 50s and 60s.
The role of women in society at that time, did not occur to me as a theme but in hindsight I can see how it works really well. There are many layers and even the unsympathetic parts are ultimately wrapped in compassion by the time we get through them.
Eugenides delivers on every single count in this book and has created a rather wonderful story which is possibly the best thing I will read in 2012.