“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides, It Sure is not Jane Austen

“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides  (2011) –  416 pages

 My first problem with “The Marriage Plot” is that I didn’t like any of the three main characters, these three Brown University graduating seniors.  Not the privileged Madeleine or the manic-depressive Leonard.  Not even Mitchell who, inspired by Mother Teresa, travels to India to work in one of her hospitals only to be grossed out by the huge staph infections and large tumors he finds on patients’ bodies there.  All three characters seem to see themselves as enormously self-entitled, perhaps typical 1980s college graduates.


Madeleine is majoring in English Literature.  The early eighties was the time when the literary theory of deconstruction and its proponents Derrida, Lacan, and Roland Barthes had taken over the academic literary world.  At that time semiotics (which I’ve always considered a branch of the academic study of idiotics) was in full flower.  Madeleine is more interested in Jane Austen, Henry James, and other Victorian novelists who frequently wrote ‘the Marriage Plot’.  The marriage plot centers on marriages of the main characters. 

 The novel ‘The Marriage Plot’ is itself a marriage plot, but  I can tell you that Jane Austen has not a thing to worry about.  Whereas in Jane Austen’s novels the heroine gradually comes to see the positive qualities of her suitor usually culminating in their marriage,  in ‘The Marriage Plot’ the marriage is the result of the mania induced when the suitor stops taking his lithium.   Up until this point our heroine was turned off by his bad breath, the digestive/alimentary disturbances, and the lethargy caused by the suitor’s lithium dose.  Modern times. 

 Maybe I appreciate the discretion of Jane Austen and the Victorians, but I really don’t need or want a lot of detail about trips to the bathroom or graphic descriptions about specific sexual acts.  There’s a lot of that kind of detail in ‘The Marriage Plot’.

 One thing that is missing in the plot is a central character who is a little older, who can look at these graduating college seniors with a little distance, a little irony. As it is I felt mostly claustrophobic disdain for these youthful characters.  One wishes that Madeleine were a stronger character, that Leonard was not so psychologically messed up as to virtually have no free will in his actions,  

 I read Eugenides’ ‘The Virgin Suicides’ quite a few years ago, and I was charmed by that novel.  However I found this latest novel ‘The Marriage Plot’ to be utterly charmless.

12 responses to this post.

  1. I’m still reading this, and I like it more than you do. Yes, these characters are elite, and that’s slightly unnerving. I wanted to dislike Madeleine, because she’s a college president’s daughter and doesn’t have to work (oh my God–no job!), but she likes the same books I do, so I gave her a break. My problem with Madeleine is that she’s much less successful than the guys (or at least at the point in my reading), so a kind of feminist alert went off in my brain.

    I’m less interested in Leonard than in the other characters and am struggling through a section from his point of view. I do think the manic-depressive situation is well-drawn: the bad medication, the dulled intelligence, the sadness. But I don’t really like Leonard, so I’m not not that interested.

    Mitchell seems the most solid to me. I do like Mitchell (though he can annoying, as are all of them from time to time). He’s the most real to me. Hey, he’s from Detroit.

    Eugenides is a very good writer, and this is a good read, but I thought Middlesex was a better book.

    But I’m not done so this can change at any minute. 🙂


    • Hi Frisbee,
      Thank you for your interesting comments. Occasionally my opinion of a novel changes over time. Who knows? That might happen here.
      I suppose my opinion of the novel may have been colored by the frequent mention of Derrida, deconstruction, and semiotics early on. That was back when I was starting to discover literature. I tried to read some of that stuff but couldn’t make heads or tails of it, so I decided rather than waste my time with literary theory I would read literature instead. I do believe I got more out of reading Tolstoy, Austen, and Doestoyevksy than I would have gotten out of reading truckloads of literary theory.


  2. Oh dear, ah well some you like and others……..

    I got put off by Eugenides after being one of the few people that didnt really like Middlesex so I figured Im just not a fan. After saying that however I will one day read the Virgin Suicides which does interest me.


    • Hi Jessica,
      Yes occeasionally even my favorite novelists will write a novel I don’t care for. I thought Anne Beattie’s ‘Chilly Scenes of Winter’ was great, but other novels of hers I couldn’t complete. And I did like ‘The Virgin Suicides’ a lot. Eugenides is probably one of those novelists whose each book you either love or hate, no in between.


  3. I’ve loved Eugenides for so long that The Marriage Plot felt like a serious letdown, both thematically and narratively.

    What’s even more disappointing is that it might be a DECADE before we see another Eugenides novel (seriously, he’s like the Terence Malick of books).

    My full review can be found here: http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2011/11/book-review-jeffrey-eugenides-marriage.html


    • Hi theoncominghope,
      I read your review of ‘The Marriage Plot’, and although we came to the book from completely different angles, we reached the same conclusion. We did not like the main characters making it difficult to care what happens to them.
      There are a few writers that take even longer between novels than Eugenidies, Marilynne Robinson being one of them, but ten years is a long time. It might be time for Eugenides to try another shorter novel like ‘The Virgin Suicides’.
      Thanks for stopping by!


  4. Also I’ve added you to my blogroll 🙂


  5. […] those of you left, the equally unique Tony of Tony’s Book World may speak to you and about “enormously self-entitled, perhaps typical 1980s college […]


  6. Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering if you knew
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  7. Hi LifeStoneChurch,
    Sorry, I can’t help you with Twitter widgets. I know there are blogs that include their latest tweets, but this isn’t one of them.
    Thanks for the feedback.


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