Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: The Marriage Plot (#8)

The Marriage Plot.

#8: THE MARRIAGE PLOT, by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

2011 was a year of discovering great writers I had never previously read: Marilynne Robinson (more on her later) and Jeffrey Eugenides. Eugenides was a name I was familiar with, but I’d somehow never gotten around to him. In 2011, I read the vibrant and sprawling Middlesex with Lulu; The Virgin Suicides and then watched Sofia Coppola’s excellent adaptation by myself one night; and then, just a few weeks ago, I read his long-awaited new novel, The Marriage Plot.

I had a good feeling about this book. Twenty pages in, I was totally engrossed. It’s been a long time since I read a book that was hard to put down on the nightstand. I finished the novel quickly and triumphantly and my mind was spinning. I say this with a bit of reservation. This is why: I admit that The Marriage Plot held my rapt attention because I am an English major. If there was ever a novel written just for English majors, this is it. I hesitate to write this, for the admission makes it sound like non-English majors wouldn’t enjoy this book. I don’t think that’s true, but I do think the pleasure of this story is greatly enhanced if you are–like its characters–also a university-educated, drifting, literary snob.

It’s 1982. Madeleine Hanna is about to graduate with a degree in English from Brown University. She is kind of a mess, but a restrained mess. She, like most of us, is striving to stay in control of her life. But her desire for control is lost when she falls in love with a completely uncontrollable young man, Leonard Bankhead. Leonard is almost everything Madeleine is not, except for the fact that they were both literature majors from Brown. That sounds like a strong and compelling similarity, but in Eugenides’ world, it’s not enough to keep them together. Leonard suffers from bipolar disorder and drags Madeleine with him, causing her to realize he is one thing she cannot analyze, describe, and control.

The novel could be entirely about Madeleine and Leonard’s love affair, but then Eugenides makes it a little more interesting by establishing a trio. We are introduced to Mitchell Grammaticus, also a classmate from Brown, who has been infatuated with Madeleine for years. Mitchell was my favorite of the these three main characters. He is thoughtful and lovable and pitiable; Mitchell’s story is the most vulnerable and relatable of the three. Like so many college students today, Mitchell graduates and wants to do something with his life, so he goes abroad. He volunteers with Mother Teresa’s infirmary in Calcutta. He looks for answers and Eugenides does not give him many. But we like Mitchell. We want him to “win,” in whatever form that takes, and we are given a gentle conclusion.

The brilliance of The Marriage Plot, for me, was Eugenides’ profound ability to read one’s thoughts. He has a prescient way of writing about people that reminds me of a more basic Proust. He loops in and out of characters’ minds, examining and explaining them with mercy and patience. It is a human novel, a clever reminder of the weakness we all bear. Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell had nothing to do with me and everything to do with me. This, I think, is a mark of an enduring, worthwhile novel.

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