Friday 15 December 2017

Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Fourth Estate, €15.99

Claire Coughlan

On his recent visit to Dublin, where he did a public reading at the Hugh Lane Gallery, American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides (he won the award for his second novel, Middlesex) had some revealing insights into his body of work thus far, showing how each of his books charts the development of his craft as an author.

He said that his first, highly acclaimed novel, The Virgin Suicides, which told the story of the suicides of a family of sisters from the point of view of infatuated boys from the neighbourhood, concerned itself primarily with voice. Middlesex, on the other hand, was more plot driven, with a complex narrative about the story of an inter sex person, but also the Greek immigrant experience in the US.

In contrast, his third, most recent work, The Marriage Plot, from which he read, dispenses with voice and plot and focuses instead on being more character-led.

Many authors are quick to distance themselves from fictional creations, but Eugenides told the audience that all three of the main characters are composites of him.

The novel's three characters are all very different, but are equally as likeable and multi-layered. Madeleine Hanna has just graduated from Brown University having majored in English literature. She has written her thesis on the marriage plot that so concerned the 19th-Century novel and she is as consumed with passion for 19th-Century literature, as she is for her charismatic, manic-depressive boyfriend Leonard Bankhead, whom she meets in a seminar called 'Semiotics 211', which all the cool kids are taking.

Leonard, on the other hand, is from the west coast of the US, as opposed to Madeleine's monied east-coast background and they are poles apart in many ways. Nonetheless, they fall in love, despite Mitchell Grammaticus' misgivings.

Mitchell, who is from the mid-west, decided years before that he would marry Madeleine and he looks on from afar, hoping that she'll break up with Leonard.

The simple plot structure follows the three characters a year after their graduation from Brown, as they try to make their way in the world. It's the early 1980s and there's a recession on, so jobs are scarce and the world doesn't welcome the graduates with open arms the way they hoped it might.

Madeleine tries to come to terms with Leonard's condition; Leonard tries to hold down a job and relationship despite his illness and Mitchell tries to simultaneously get over Madeleine and find spiritual enlightenment in a series of experiments with different religious beliefs.

All three find that the 'real world' -- or life itself -- hits them like a truck once they leave the relative sanctuary of college education and Madeleine finds through experience that, in some respects, reading about life is no substitute for living itself.

The Marriage Plot contains the best depiction of depression and mental illness that I've ever read: it is moving, sad and often very, very funny. Eugenides evokes the characters so well that it's difficult not to feel utter empathy for all three and to hope that events will work out despite considerable setbacks.

Without spoiling the ending, The Marriage Plot is above all, a hopeful book. Whereas The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex concerned themselves with childhood and adolescence, The Marriage Plot is about young adulthood, that first cutting of the apron strings and foray into the big, bad world. And for all that it may have been nigh on 10 years in the writing, the characters are nonetheless more unforgettable, flawed and ultimately likeable than any you are likely to come across this decade.

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