Author: Jeffrey Eugenides, 2011.
Genre: Period Fiction. Post-Modern. Relationships. Coming of Age. Mental Illness.
Other Details: Hardback. 406pages.
"There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel." - Anthony Trollope - quoted on the dust jacket of The Marriage Plot.
Opening on their graduation day from Brown University in 1982, Eugenides' third novel follows the lives of three students during their first year post-graduation with flash backs to their university experiences.
Madeleine Hanna is an English major writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot and the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. While she studies the motivations of the human heart two very different suitors appear on the scene. She had first met charismatic loner Leonard Bankhead during a semiotics seminar and she soon finds herself in a highly-charged relationship with him. The other bloke is Mitchell Grammaticus, an old friend whom Madeleine has placed in the Friend Zone. He is privately obsessed with the idea that he and Madeleine are destined to be together. Mitchell is engaged upon a spiritual quest that sees him reading Christian mysticism and after graduation travelling to India where he encounters the work with the dying being undertaken by Mother Teresa.
It is a familiar love triangle that can be seen in many examples of romantic fiction including Twilight: quiet idealistic young woman falls for the dark, brooding complex bloke while on the sidelines there is another bloke who is kind and supportive with a bad case of unrequited love.
While very different to Middlesex, I found this another intelligent, thought-provoking novel by Eugenides that addressed a range of issues including fashions in literary theory, the shift from the campus to the 'real world' and the impact of severe mental illness upon the individual as well as family and friends. As someone who is dealing daily with bi-polar disorder, I could certainly relate to these aspects of the narrative and felt it was approached with sensitivity especially in terms of the brain-deadening effects of medication and the seduction of the manic stage. Happily since the 1980s there have been significant advances in treatment.
From literary reviews I have read it appears that this is Eugenides' most personal novel to date drawing upon his experiences at Brown University in the early 1980s and his youthful religious questionings that included working for a time at Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying in Calcutta. It explains how he depicted the scenes at the hospice in such detail.
The Marriage Plot was read by one of my reading groups that had loved Middlesex. The consensus was that while it didn't have the same impact as that earlier novel it still held our attention and explored interesting themes. Reflecting on it, I feel that it is a novel that I'd welcome re-reading in a year or so.