Book Review: ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides will be at BookPeople to speak and sign 'The Marriage Plot' on Thursday, Oct 27, 7p.

Book: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Reviewed by:
Liz W.
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Jeffrey Eugenides’ long-awaited third novel begins with an epigraph from the Talking Heads’ song “Once In a Lifetime”:

And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here? …
And you may tell yourself,
This is not my beautiful house.
And you may tell yourself

This is not my beautiful wife.

This sense of amazement that we can feel looking back on our lives—how in the world did we end up like this? doing this? living this?—is the central concern of The Marriage Plot. The novel follows three young college grads, fumbling their way into adulthood in 1982. Madeleine, a lover of romantic novels by Jane Austen and Henry James, finds herself torn between two men: Mitchell, whose wanderlust and theological interests lead him on a world tour after college, and Leonard, an intelligent-yet-troubled scientist who lands a prestigious research fellowship on Cape Cod.

Does this premise sound familiar? Thoughtful, pretty girl decides between two boys—one smart and devoted, one passionate and moody? It’s the classic love triangle. Some might be reminded of Emma, but I can’t help thinking about Felicity—the great late-90s TV drama that lasted for four seasons, pretty much relying solely on Felicity’s inevitable decision between Ben or Noel. Will it be Ben? Will it be Noel?! This isn’t exactly the narrative you’d expect from Eugenides, and at first, some readers might assume this type of plot is beneath him. But there’s a lot more complexity in this marriage plot than one might think.

For example, rather than unfolding chronologically, the narrative in The Marriage Plot has been written in a series of interconnected loops—much like the Möbius strip wedding band on the novel’s cover. At the beginning of each section, Eugenides presents us with an intriguing situation and then subtly, deftly, almost without the reader even noticing, he transports us back in time in order to move forward again. He shows us where these characters are and then answers our most burning question: How did they get there? And the delicious result of these circular narratives is that we, as readers, can never predict what those answers will be.

Eugenides fans will also be pleased to know that this novel contains the lovely flourishes that we’ve come to expect from his work: it has the captivating language of his 1993 debut, The Virgin Suicides (which was later turned into a beautiful, haunting film by Sofia Coppola), and it has characters with rich interior lives, like those in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 novel, Middlesex. Above all, I think it’s important for readers to pick up this book with the understanding that Eugenides has taken a risk in writing The Marriage Plot. He has taken one of literature’s most classic plot structures, made it modern, and messed with it. And he has done a great job. Perhaps the most delightful surprise in this novel is its ending. Will it be Mitchell? Will it be Leonard? Dear readers, I promise, it will be so much more.

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Jeffery Eugenides will be here at BookPeople to speak about and sign The Marriage Plot on Thursday, October 27th, 7pm. The speaking portion of the event is free and open to the public. If you would like a book signed, we ask that you please purchase it from BookPeople. If you’d like a signed copy of the book but cannot make it to the event, please call 512-472-5050 to order one.

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