For me The Marriage Plot was my most anticipated book of the year. I had read Eugenides earlier works (Middlesex, Virgin Suicides) and loved them. I went to hear the author read from his work and answer questions at the Free Library session he conducted. All of this anticipation I think added to my disappointment with this story.
The setting for the novel is the Brown University campus in 1982. There are three central characters – Madeline, an indulged rich girl is a Literature major who loves the works of the great Victorian novelists (Eliot, James, etc.); Leonard is a brilliant biology major who has bipolar disease; Mitchell an idealist majoring in religious studies rounds out the trio. The story opens on graduation day. Madeline and Leonard have been lovers but have separated. On the way to graduation Madeline finds out that Leonard has been hospitalized for his bipolar disorder, she skips graduation joins him at the hospital and begins a period that ends up with her marriage to him a year later. Mitchell has been in love with Madeline (or an idealized version of her) since freshman year but his love is unrequited. The story is told in three parts from each of their view points.
Let me first concentrate on what I liked about this novel. Eugenides is able to create genuine characters that have a real depth to them. The sections where Leonard’s mental illness is depicted were excellent. He described the lithium effects on Leonard’s personality and he gives real understanding to the depression that he suffers from. I read these parts and was sure that Eugenides must have had firsthand experience with mental illness to write this well. Leonard is the most developed of the characters; we get his back story of family problems and have a real understanding of his personality. Mitchell is also a well done character, he is the seeker of truth and beauty in the trio, even his idealism rings true for a 22 year old. His trip to work at Mother Teresa’s hospital in India (something Eugenides did) and his eventual dawning that he is not meant to become a religious mystic again rings true in the telling. I also liked the way Eugenides was able to describe the places where the novel occurred. The Brown campus, the genetics laboratory and the upper class New Jersey society all were worlds that were lush with detail and alive to the reader.
There were a number of things I did not like about this novel. I thought that the number of literary and philosophical references (some of which I understood, most of which probably passed me by), were too clever and in the end pretentious and distracting from the story. I really didn’t care for any of the characters, Leonard was narcissistic to the point of annoyance – I know, I know he was mentally ill – but it didn’t make him any more likeable. Madeline, like Mitchell was an idealist, but she seemed to also be self absorbed and really didn’t show much character growth. I was never able to understand what she saw in Leonard. Mitchell was the best of them, but again not enough for me to care about. Lastly, I thought the story lacked tension, probably because toward the end I had only a mild interest in the fate of these characters.
This novel is not Eugenides best effort. He is a fine writer who is erudite, witty and clever but that isn’t enough to carry this novel – a weak story well told.
I read a copy of this book that I purchased.