Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher/Format: MacMillan Audio 13 CDs, 16 hours, 416 pg equivalent
Narrator: David Pittu
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: literature, love, mental illness
Setting: New York, Rhode Island, Cape Cod
Genre: fiction
Source: Review audio furnished by publisher

When MacMillan first offered me this book on audio, I essentially said "No thanks, I really don't 'get' Eugenides".  I was reluctant to accept the audio book knowing that it would probably languish in the corner pile of my personal TBR mountain range, in spite of my avowed love of the audio format.  Their wise publicist, Esther Bochner,  encouraged me by saying that the audio was awesome and she thought I would enjoy it.  She was right!

Although I was a math major in college, and never have understood others' fascination with Jane Austen, etal, I was able to follow this story pretty well.  I'm sure I missed many literary allusions, but that does not spoil the story.  Set in the early 80's (just as I had finished grad school) at Brown University in Rhode Island, and then in Cape Cod and New York, the story follows the coming of age angst of Madeleine Hanna who is completing her senior thesis on the Marriage Plot theme prominent in the novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot.  In the meantime, she becomes involved with Leonard Bankhead, a Darwinist from the west coast, and at the same time develops an intellectual relationship with a semiotics classmate Mitchell Grammaticus who thinks that Madeleine is his destined mate.

As Mitchell travels to Europe, India and Asia between senior year and graduate school, Maddy and Leonard move to Cape Cod so he can pursue a research fellowship.  At the same time, Leonard also develops a full blown case of manic depression.

This could have been an awful book with disparate pieces floating all over the place.  Instead, Eugenides keeps all the players and their stories tied together, interesting, and ultimately brings us to a conclusion we should have seen coming, but in my case at least, we didn't.  The references to places, music, literature, history, politics of the era made this one easy for me to relate to, but are also clear enough for younger readers to understand. 

While the setting and the plot are well developed, this is truly a character driven work.  The expansion of the three main characters is done with precision and insight.  We don't understand Maddy, because she doesn't really understand herself.  We feel great pain for Leonard's mental illness (and for Maddy's inability to deal with it).  Several times I asked myself if medical science hasn't come further along in treatment of bipolar disorder than what was portrayed in the setting 30 years ago.  Mitchell's seemingly unorganized ramble through Europe and India seems out of character with his professed desire to enter divinity school, but does give us an excellent picture of the state of his brain and his emotions.

The reader can take this at several levels:  as the plain and simple story of three mixed up college graduates with too much learning, and too little grip on the reality of adulthood and the need to settle down and take care of themselves; or one can read this as a very complex mimicry of the 19th century English novels where women and men were meant to be paired for life (at least I think that's what the Marriage Plot is - never could read Austen, nor have I ever read Eliot).  Eugenides' genius seems to be in creating a story that can be enjoyed by readers coming from either level.

I certainly enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.  The audio was exceptionally well done.  David Pittu manages to give each character a distinct voice, and his clear enunciation helps us to understand at least the words if not the literary concepts presented.  I can't compare it to Eugenides' previous works, but this one is definitely a winner.


  1. I have never read anything by this author, but this sounds interesting.
    not totally sold on the audio though..I still have my audio issues.

  2. This was a selection in my book club and what a great read it turned out to be. Now I have to read Middlesex!
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