The one true and lasting love affair in Jeffrey Eugenides' new novel doesn't develop between two of his three main characters, though those characters generate plenty of daydreams, intrigue and lust amongst themselves.
No, the great love in The Marriage Plot lies in the heart of bright, privileged Madeleine Hanna, and Madeleine Hanna loves books. An English major "for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read," she also might love a boy or two, to varying degrees. But literature invariably comes first, even when she doesn't realize it.
The Marriage Plot is Eugenides' first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex (2002), probably one of the hardest acts to follow in all of modern literature (a close second might be Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). Walking a literary high wire has its rewards but also its perils: Few who have read Middlesex will be quite as dazzled by the new book. Fair enough. How do you top a book that opens with this riveting line: "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974"?
The Marriage Plot is more sedate: "To start with, look at all the books" inevitably suffers in comparison. But its characters are wonderfully imagined and its deconstruction of the marriage plot — that popular, old-fashioned device used so effectively by such beloved writers as Jane Austen, Henry James, George Eliot and the Brontës — in a modern-day setting is an irresistible set-up for any reader who loves books the way Madeleine loves them.
The novel — Eugenides' third; he's also author of The Virgin Suicides — opens on graduation day 1982 at Brown University, and the story winds backward and forward through the lives of Madeleine and her two suitors. Neither of them would be mistaken for Mr. Darcy. Greek-American Mitchell Grammaticus, an on-again, off-again pal from the great Midwest who comes to class in "baggy secondhand suits and beat-up shoes, sort of a drunken preacher or Tom Waits look," is ferociously smart and obsessed with religious studies. He's the sort of odd but well-read guy who can swipe a page out of J.D. Salinger and repeat Franny's Jesus prayer from Franny and Zooey without a trace of self- consciousness. What he can't do is shake his despised status as Madeleine's friend.
Portland, Ore.,-born Leonard Bankhead, brainy and charismatic and handsome, is Mitchell's chief rival for Madeleine's affections. He boasts an affinity for science and bedding Brown girls but suffers from a debilitating case of manic depression. Naturally, Madeleine falls for Leonard. Who wouldn't? But as Eugenides so deftly points out, a contemporary love story contains more complications than a simple Regency romance.
Eugenides knows his way around academia — he teaches at Princeton University — and he satirizes some ripe targets, such as the teaching and application of semiotics to literature. Madeleine, who has "a fuzzy, unsystematic way of talking about books," is flummoxed by the post-modern practice of parsing works: She "had a feeling that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their rage onto literature. They wanted to demote an author. They wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. ... Whereas Madeleine was perfectly happy with the idea of genius."
The Marriage Plot isn't really a campus novel, though; Eugenides is less concerned with academia than he is with charting his characters' progress from the safe haven of college into the big, unforgiving world, where they finally learn what's important to them. Their lopsided love triangle and journeys of self-discovery are familiar, but Eugenides infuses his prose with intelligence, humor and the happy knowledge that there's a reason readers return to familiar stories so often: They tell us more about ourselves and about what we really want than we'd care to admit.