“To start with, look at all the books.” That’s how Jeffrey Eugenides begins The Marriage Plot, his third—and greatest—novel to date. He goes on to list the novels and volumes of poetry—Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Denise Levertov—that sit on the shelves of a recent college graduate named Madeleine Hanna.
Explore all the best of 2011 fiction.
It’s the early 1980s in Providence, R.I., and Madeleine is trying to figure out who she is, what stories speak to her. Is it the Victorian literature she’s loved for years, the novels that maybe remind her, somehow, of her financially comfortable, WASP upbringing? Or is it the brainy, cold, post-structuralist meta-analysis of Roland Barthes, the darling of the cool post-punk kids on her campus?
The Marriage Plot follows Madeleine and two of her schoolmates as they try to figure out who they are and what they want. Those are never easy questions, and they’re especially difficult for these three kids, all well-meaning and all imperfect. Madeleine falls in love with Leonard Bankhead, a former Portland pothead struggling to control his bipolar disorder. And then there’s Mitchell Grammaticus, who loves Madeleine and resents Leonard, who goes to Europe and then India to try to find God and forget his crush. They all have goals, and they’re all met with both success and failure along the way.
This is a book about books, and it’s a book about falling in love. For many of us—and if you’re reading this, chances are you’ll identify—those are more or less the same thing. In a perfect world, our families would teach us about love, would show us what love is. But the world isn’t perfect, and never has been, and never will be.
Books are different. In literature, even the most flawed and beaten down and hurt people—the “beautiful losers,” as Leonard Cohen described them—can be sanctified; even the most doomed love affair can be holy. The genius of The Marriage Plot comes from the fact that Eugenides realizes that the pain and the joy of love are inseparable, and that nothing is ever as easy or as complicated as we think—or wish—it would be.
While all the characters in the novel are flawlessly drawn, the most affecting part of the book is when Eugenides follows Leonard, deeply in love with Madeleine but beaten down by his own demons, to a mental hospital. He’s committed to a rundown, state-run facility, where barely interested doctors periodically check in and adjust his medication. He’s lonely, depressed, unshaven (the hospital doesn’t let its patients have razors) and just wants to leave.
When he does, he’s pumped full of lithium, fat, impotent, able to function, but desperately self-loathing and unhappy. Of course it’s heartbreaking, but more than that, it’s perhaps the most accurate description of psychological illness and mental hospitalization that I’ve ever read in any book, fiction or nonfiction. Desperation is so hard to write, it can seem impossible. Eugenides nails it, and it’s a breathtaking accomplishment.
Maybe, like Leonard, you have to suffer to truly love. Maybe you have to make mistakes you’ll always regret, like when Mitchell, frustrated with Madeleine, writes her a brutally mean letter that almost ends their friendship forever. Or when Madeleine, desperate for some kind of human contact, has a drunken sexual encounter with a classmate she never really liked and ends up in tears.
Maybe you don’t have to do any of those things, but let’s face it—most of us do. And thankfully, most of us find our own salvation anyway. All of that makes The Marriage Plot one of the most honest, beautiful novels about love in recent years. (Of course, you could argue that all novels are about love, and you’d have a point.)
Eugenides’ first book, The Virgin Suicides, was a delicate, gossamer slip of a novel. It was beautiful and accomplished, but also deeply and somewhat dangerously enigmatic. His follow-up, Middlesex, was a sprawling and ambitious failure, though it won considerable critical acclaim and the Pulitzer Prize, it still wasn’t much more than a showy experiment that never quite worked. With The Marriage Plot, Eugenides has finally found what appears to be his true voice. It’s a realist novel with shades of Updike—his prose has been reined in, mercifully, but there’s not a sentence in the book that even comes close to being boring.
All of us have a lot to learn about love, about literature, about one another. Nobody ever knows everything, and nobody ever has. Maybe that seems obvious, but it sure didn’t seem that way to me when I was 22, and it definitely doesn’t for Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell. The best novelists are the ones who make the obvious seem new and vice versa. There aren’t many of them.
With The Marriage Plot, Eugenides proves that he’s one of them, and any author should be so lucky as to do that even once in his or her career. Everyone knows what we talk about when we talk about love (to quote another American genius), but only a few know what we feel when we talk about love. That’s what Eugenides has done in this original, beautiful and unforgettable masterpiece.
Michael Schaub is the former managing editor of Bookslut and a frequent contributor to NPR.org. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. A native of Texas, he now lives in Portland, Ore.