It's the early 1980s - the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to the Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.
As Madeleine tries to understand why "it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth century France," real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead - charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy - suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old "friend" Mitchell Grammaticus - who's been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange - resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.
Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can't escape the secret responsible for Leonard's seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.
Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.
A Madman in Love
To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Brontë sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly. There was the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade and which she was using now to provide textual support in her English honors thesis on the marriage plot. There was, in short, this mid-size but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a ...
Perhaps it is my affinity for English majors, or perhaps it was Eugenides's embrace of realism and a character-driven plot, but the pages of this novel flew by, despite the book's respectable heft. It is neither a breezy, beachy romance novel nor an intricate, challenging tome, but is balanced squarely between those two poles. Producing a work that is equal parts pleasure and intellectual debate, as the author has done, is as difficult as it is admirable. Eugenides is one of the few literary novelists with a large following and a great amount of popularity among American readers, and The Marriage Plot serves as another example of why his work is so enjoyable.
(Reviewed by Elizabeth Whitmore Funk).
Full Review (872 words).
Madeleine Hanna, heroine of The Marriage Plot, is enthralled with the tidy, thoughtful novels of the nineteenth century. Here are three prominent Victorian writers and information about their literary styles that will make the experience of reading Eugenides's story all the more pleasurable.
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