It’s complicated

I don’t know why Jeffrey Eugenides set The Marriage Plot in the early 1980s (except that he was himself was a 20-something at the time), but I can say in retrospect why it feels necessary: there wasn’t any Facebook.

The Marriage Plot is about Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus, all seniors at Brown when we first meet (or hear of) them. Over the course of the novel, told in part through flashbacks, Mitchell meets and falls in love with Madeleine, who meets and falls in love with Leonard, who falls in love back with Madeleine. It would be an almost simplistic love story were it not for the narrative foil of Leonard, who in addition to being the Edward to Mitchell’s Jacob, is also bipolar. Management and treatment of the disease dominate his life, and in turn his relationship with Madeleine. 

I’m a huge fan of Eugenides’ Middlesex (READ IT),  so I had high hopes for The Marriage Plot, and I wasn’t necessarily disappointed. I mean, I finished it in three days (including a two-hour stint on New Jersey transit with a crying baby) so I can’t say I didn’t find it compelling, or that I wasn’t keen on on watching these characters and their relationships unfold. Trust me, I wanted to know who Madeleine ends up with, and you would (will?) too.

But TMP does feel a little underwhelming, perhaps by virtue of its predecessor, or by the implicit promise of a new Eugenidesized approach to a tale as old as time, a promise on which it kind of fails to deliver. Sure, Madeleine and Leonard and Mitchell are interesting (if not particularly likable) characters, and my investment in them is a testament to Eugenides’ narrative skill, but at the end of the day, boy meets girl and girl meets boy and then there’s another boy and girl has to figure out which boy she wants to be with. That’s the gist of it — it being The Marriage Plot, and the first season of every new CW drama since 2002.

There is a highlight to be found, however, in Eugenides’ exploration of Leonard’s manic-depression. In doing some internet-ing before writing this review, I came across a Vulture piece claiming that character of Leonard — a smart but grounded scientist, prone to chewing tobacco, bandana-wearing and flights of mania — must be at least some sort of nod to David Foster Wallace. And although I didn’t think it at the time (I’m currently watching the first season of Homeland, so all references to bipolar disorder bring to mind a wild-eyed Claire Danes), I can see it in hindsight. (I also happened to start The Broom of the System after finishing TMP, so maybe I’d already made the connection subconsciously.)

In any case, the parts of the novel that focus on Leonard’s disease are some of the most riveting, and his struggles to control the disease, or grapple with the side effects of his medicine, are heartbreaking. It is here that Eugenides puts a little dent in the love triangle: what is girl to do when boy has a non-fatal illness that makes it increasingly difficult to love him?

But so anyway, Facebook. A lot of introspection in TPM goes on not when the various protagonists are together, but when they are apart, either completely, or in a breakdown of two and one. Because back in ye olde 80s, not occupying the same physical space as someone actually meant something: You found out about friends’ lives through other friends; you could still drunk-dial an ex-boyfriend and hang up before he answered. Shit, you could still sober-dial anyone and have an actual conversation. (There’s a scene in the book where an off-his-medication Leonard calls his friends multiple times a day to share mania-induced rants. Somehow, I don’t think it would have translated to texting.)

In a way, it’s the anachronism of TPM that makes it work, or at least work better than a novel where Mitchell finds out Madeleine is dating Leonard through Facebook, and Leonard channels his crazy into tweets, and Mitchell documents his trip to India on Instagram. The novel is an inadvertent reminder that the Internet has taken all the mystery out of life, and young love, including the countless hours spent pondering the exact whereabouts, activities and emotions of one’s current, former or potential significant other. Sure, maybe it wasn’t the best story ever written, or even the best story ever written by Eugenides. But that’s okay. Because at the end of the day, who doesn’t love a good boy meets girl.


TITLE: The Marriage Plot
AUTHOR: Jeffrey Eugenides
PAGES: 416 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Middlesex, The Virgin Suicides
SORTA LIKE: Leaving the Atocha Station meets The Rules of Attraction
FIRST LINE: “To start with, look at all the books.”

4 thoughts on “It’s complicated”

  1. If you find bi-polar interesting, try ‘An Unquiet Mind’ by Kay Redfield Jamison. Non- fiction, as the author is not only bi-polar but also a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. Was published to great critical acclaim…

  2. I think I read that, or most of it, a few years ago. It may even still be kicking around in the book piles…

  3. Hi Kira, Annie (Matt’s coworker, Twitter follower, Smith’s bar for about 15 minutes) here. I was SO hopeful and excited before I read TMP this summer. We’re still talking about the book so I felt compelled to say that during and after reading it, I am sad to say, I was left underwhelmed. At the same time, I was also reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room which is MAGNIFICENT and not at all about marriage, so it could have been the juxtaposition. It felt like a very cold, very shallow treatment to topics which are neither of those things.

    On the other hand, post-reading, I enjoy speculating which actor will go Daniel Day Lewis on David Foster Wallace/Leonard. Jake Gyllenhaal? Jim from the Office who adapted Brief Interviews for film? Watching that spectacle is something I look forward to.

    Also I’m just discovering your blog and am having a field day. Don’t be creeped out if I comment on old stuff.

  4. I don’t think John Krasinski has the intensity to pull off Leonard (even though his adapting Brief Interviews made me love him more, I was only eh on the actual movie) but Gyllenhaal I could definitely see. Or maybe it’s Channing Tatum’s breakout dramatic role.

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