As a former English major, I’m a big fan of books about academia, especially if it’s about other English majors. I finally picked up Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot after finding it in hard cover at a book warehouse sale for super cheap. The novel primarily follows Madeline, a college graduate writing her senior thesis on the 19th-century marriage plots of Jane Austen & co. At least that’s what the jacket says. What this novel is really about is living with someone who is manically depressed and the use of lithium to treat it in the 80s. In college, where the novel starts, Madeline has two suitors, one an introverted, sensitive The Marriage Plotboy named Mitchell and the other the grungy, intelligent but manic Leonard. Madeline only likes Mitchell when she needs him, and falls hopelessly in love with Leonard. Every now and then we get sections from the two boys’ perspectives; Leonard, as he sinks into depression and then as he experiments with Lithium doses, and Mitchell, as he treks across India and Europe the summer after graduating. Madeline chooses Leonard, for better or worse.
Mitchell is the only half-way decent character, and that’s saying something. Madeline starts as a privileged, marginally self-aware WASP, and doesn’t really change much throughout the novel. Mitchell has something like a conversion experience in India while serving Mother Theresa, and Leonard alternates between sane, manic, and depressed, but most of the time is just depressed and resentful. He’s poor and from a bad family and resents that Madeline is rich and from a good family. And it’s because of this, really, not Leonard’s disease, that they can never have a future together. That and the fact that Madeline doesn’t really understand what Leonard’s going through, even though she pretends to and fools herself into thinking that she can save him.
The so-called “plot” is not worthy of its allusion and is summed up nicely by Mitchell for a tidy ending, where everyone at least has the chance for happiness and no one ends up together (is that really a spoiler when you can see it coming from the second chapter?). But the novel is clearly supposed to be a character study, or a study on what mental illness in relationships can look like. The problem is that the characters are unable to carry the novel because they are almost wholly unsympathetic. Great fiction can feature unlikeable characters, as long as they are compelling or as long as the author can make the reader care about them or what happens to them in some way (or in some cases, only because the prose is just that amazing). That is not the case here. Madeline is shallow and frequently whiney, while Leonard is fairly flat and predictable, as are all of the secondary characters. Mitchell is the most interesting, but he is ultimately insufferable in his own way too.
The narrative is likewise insufferable. It’s bogged down by flashback after flashback that are supposed to reveal character and motivation, but are really only info dumps that become increasingly frustrating. The writing is pedestrian and frankly, boring. There is far too much extraneous information weighing it down. At one crucial point, when Madeline goes to check her mailbox for a Yale acceptance letter, Eugenides details the specific route she took for no other reason than to waste space and attempt to build anticipation. It has the opposite effect; by the time she turned left down the hallway on the right to reach the mailroom, I did not care at all what was in that mailbox. And it’s too bad too, because Madeline’s only concept of her future hinges on that one letter.
I fully admit to skipping and skimming frequently through this novel, something I rarely do. In fact, I only do it when I know that if I skip ahead, the narrative will likely be in almost the same spot, thanks to extraneous flashbacks. I really did not miss much in the 200 pages I skipped, but went back and skip-skimmed around anyway, just to be sure. The Marriage Plot is a general waste of reading time. For a real coming of age through academia and personal issues amidst privilege and opportunity, read Gloria by Keith Maillard. It’s from 2001 and may actually be out of print. It was my first academic novel, read the year before I went to college, and I loved it. I traded in my copy a long time ago, but it haunts me now and then. Just last night I came across it in a used book store and almost bought it. After thinking about how young I was when I read it, and therefore how much I probably missed, I called the bookstore up and had them put it on hold. I’m also reading the seminal academic novel, Dona Tartt’s The Secret History, in anticipation of her new novel, The Goldfinch, out this September. The two are unrelated but I’m in the mood for academic novels and figure I should read her best work before I read her next work. After a slew of disappointing reads, I’m hoping that The Secret History will lift me out of that slump.