By Jeffrey Eugenides
406 pages, $28
Updated: October 16, 2011 2:27AM
What would George Eliot do with a society leveled by equal rights and the Talking Heads playing in the background? How would the Brontes fare with casual sex and psychotropic drugs? And how would Dickens deal with the Me Generation?
Those musings inevitably come to mind reading The Marriage Plot, the dazzling new novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. Loaded with ideas and humor, it is the long-awaited follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex (2002). As modern as next month, it also is colored by the long shadow of the 18th century masters.
The book centers on Madeleine Hanna, a beautiful, lively, bookish lass immersed in her senior thesis. Her subject: an explication of the “marriage plot,” that central concern in all those whopping-long Victorian novels (and in the works of Jane Austen, which are technically Regency Period, but Madeleine likes them too much to ignore).
She’s obsessed with those great writers and the paces they put their characters through. However, the old quill-penners seem worlds apart from her life in 1982, as she and her pals are nearing graduation from Brown University. And while Madeleine may not feel that scruffy apartments, graduate school application letters and toga parties share much in common with the Victorians, it turns out that some things never change. Love, for one — and its complications, which the modern world makes even more complicated.
Madeleine is the central figure in this modern marriage plot, and she’s the pivot of a love triangle whose sides never stay exactly straight. Mitchell is the boy who has been pining for her forever. Deep and spiritually inclined, he muffed his chance with Madeleine a few years ago and now they are just “friends.” His rival, and the book’s best character, is Leonard Bankhead, a charismatic, brooding, budding scientist.
What looks to be a setup for a campus romance quickly becomes something much more. Some philosophical “scientists,” who call the whole thing into question, aid Eugenides’ contemporary examination of love. Remember, it’s the ’80s, and for the literarily inclined like this cast, the classrooms have been infiltrated by semiotics and deconstructions like Roland Barthes. His book, A Lover’s Discourse, with its microscopic, inside-out look at love becomes a rallying and ranting point.
Graduation opens up the air to these hothouse flowers. Madeleine, unable to get into grad school, joins Leonard on the Cape for a fellowship, where he studies the genetics of yeast cells. With Eugenides at the controls, you can count on that subject being both fascinating and imbued with meaning about connections and longing . . . really. But, by now, it’s clear that Leonard is increasingly suffering from manic-depression, throwing Madeleine into a further analysis of love and identity. She also learns about lithium and the balancing act it requires of all attendees.
Meanwhile, Mitchell heads off on a quasi-religious quest, first to Athens and then to work for a few weeks with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, where he encounters predictable poverty and disease and also a form of enlightenment. It’s not so much a life-changing experience as a clarifying one.
Their destinies intertwined, this trio continually comes together and blows apart — until an ending that is as un-Victorian as an avocado refrigerator-freezer but perfect for a heady coming-of-age tale in this age.
Extremely ambitious, The Marriage Plot is also surprising and propulsive. Its non-linear narrative allows the introduction of a huge number of expertly rendered settings. We’re taken comfortably everywhere from Providence (Eugenides graduated from Brown in ’83), Oregon, Detroit, WASP-y New Jersey, Paris, Monaco, Manhattan and India.
While his flattered forebears from 150 years ago may not agree with the way this marriage plot unfolds, they’d recognize the canvas, nod assent at the effort and applaud the talent.
And they’d be amazed that Eugenides pulled it off in half the length of Middlemarch. Shorter attention spans these days, you know.
John Barron is the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times.