Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Madeleine Hanna, who graduates from Brown University on the day The Marriage Plot begins, had “become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.”  She adored Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, George Eliot, and Dickens.  Thus, classmate Mitchell Grammaticus is the perfect man for her.  He adores her, he’s smart and her parents find him as ideal as Mr. Darcy.  But Madeleine has fallen for the frightening Leonard Bankhead, a loner in her semiotics seminar. 

Semiotics, the theory and study of signs and symbols, is the glue that holds this novel together. “Going to college in the moneymaking eighties lacked a certain radicalism.  Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution.  It drew a line; it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental…if scanning Wordsworth was making you feel dowdy and ink-stained, there was another option… You could sign up for Semiotics 211 and find out what everyone else was talking about. “

What everyone else was talking about was looking behind things for their real meaning and not dwelling on what people did or even on what was realistic. In that context Madeleine could easily fall for Leonard because of who he was while ignoring his bizarre behavior.  

Madeleine noted that “Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights.”  Reading the second half of this novel after trudging through the weightiness and satire of the first few hundred pages is also like shedding a heavy burden.  The latter sections dealing with the love triangle composed of Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell are a soaring song compared to the funeral dirge of the novel’s beginnings. 

Mitchell’s struggles with his dream of serving the destitute and dying under Mother Teresa in Calcutta and his interest in Christian mysticism are both beautifully written and eminently readable.  Leonard’s descent into mental illness that seemed overdrawn early in the novel, realizes a perfect symmetry with Madeleine’s efforts to save him. The novel‘s ending is one of the best I’ve ever read – I just wish it might have been a more entertaining journey to reach it.

Summing it Up:  Read it to admire the writing and for the careful, Tolstoy-like manner in which the ending captures the wisdom contained throughout the novel.

Rating: 4 stars    Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Book Club

Publication date:  October 11, 2011

What Others are Saying:


  1. I've loved Eugenides for so long that The Marriage Plot felt like a serious letdown, both thematically and narratively.

    What's even more disappointing is that it might be a DECADE before we see another Eugenides novel (seriously, he's like the Terence Malick of books).

    My full review can be found here:

  2. I'm even more confused now as Amazon and Publishers Weekly have it in their top books of the year. I couldn't even think of how to review it as I couldn't get a handle on what he was trying to accomplish and I, like "theoncominghope" was disappointed because I expected so much more.

  3. My first book by Mr. Eugenides but it won't be the last. Wonderful characters, lots of narrative surprises and just terrific writing. Highly recommended.
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