Summary and book reviews of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot

A Novel

by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2011, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2012, 464 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Whitmore Funk

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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. The opening scene features a litany of the books Madeleine loves. What were your first impressions of her, based on her library? How are her beliefs about love transformed throughout the novel?


  2. When Phyllida fell in love with Alton, she gave up her dream of becoming an actress in Hollywood. What sustains the Hannas' marriage despite this sacrifice? How are Alwyn and Madeleine influenced by their parents' marriage? Is Alwyn's marriage to Blake a bad one?


  3. In Jeffrey Eugenides's depiction of Brown university culture in the 1980s, what does it take for the students to impress one another and their professors? What might Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida have to say about the signs in Dr. Zipperstein's Semiotics 211 class?


  4. ...

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    Indie Booksellers’ Choice Awards
    2012

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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 Members Only (591 words).

Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Dazzling work - Eugenides continues to show that he is one of the finest of contemporary novelists.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [The Marriage Plot] so impressively, ambitiously breaks the mold of its predecessor that it calls for the founding of a new prize to recognize its success... the central argument of the book is also its solution: the old stories may be best after all, but there are always new ways to complicate them.

Library Journal

This extraordinary, liquidly written evocation of love's mad rush and inevitable failures will feed your mind as you rapidly turn the pages. Highly recommended.

Booklist

Starred Review. [A] tightly, immaculately, self-contained tale...

Reader Reviews

Gena S

Different but Good
The Marriage Plot is a very different book to Eugenides’ Middlesex, but very good – a deeper, more complex read. This may not be a book you’ll love from page one but if you give it time, and don’t let yourself get put off by the pseudo-literary ...   Read More

Diane S.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Didn't like this nearly as much as I thought I would. There was quite a lot of talking about literature and theory as well as criticism so one would think I would devour it. This was so not the case, it was rather dry and the characters were not very...   Read More

Dorothy T.

Disappointing
This novel is not what I was expecting. A review on the back cover states that this is "a grand romance in the Austen tradition." I didn't find that to be true, but I certainly found elements (like vulgar language and explicit sex) that ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Prominent Victorian Writers

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.

George Eliot (1819-1880)
George Eliot Born with the name Mary Ann Evans, Eliot took a masculine pen name in the hopes that her fiction would be treated seriously by Victorian readers. Her seven novels, among them Middlemarch, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner, are noted for their flawed, imperfect characters and protagonists. Most of her novels take place in the rural English countryside and contend with religious and social issues.
...

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