Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (4/5)

15 Jan

I bought a copy of this book soon after finishing Middlesex when I was in love with Eugenides. I didn’t have a huge urgency to read it, however, and the book languished on my shelf for four years before I decided to try it on audio.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Other books by Jeffrey Eugenides reviewed on this blog:

Middlesex (and book club reflection)

Summary from Goodreads:

It’s the early 1980s – the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to the Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.

As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead – charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy – suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus – who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange – resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

This book started off a little slow for me and I was really skeptical, thinking I wasn’t going to like it. Structurally, I didn’t like it too much. The bulk of the story was told in flashbacks and that annoyed me at every turn. It was too much like this, “Here’s a time jump! Want to know how we got here? Good, because I’m going to go back and fill in the time gap I jumped to build tension.” It got on my nerves really fast. I think that’s why I can’t give the full five stars. The characters and plot were really intriguing and well researched, but the jumps killed it for me.

I loved the characters. I can tell Eugenides spent a lot of time researching manic depression to depict Leonard and Madeline’s stories. I was fascinated with Mitchell’s travels, especially in light of my plan to travel Europe this summer. I felt the Hanna’s were a bit over accommodating, but I couldn’t tell if that was a regional thing or not. Some of the aspects of Madeline’s life growing up in New Jersey were very different from my Midwestern childhood. Maybe that’s why I connected with Mitchell so much better.

It’s a tough call, but I think Mitchell was my favorite character. I thought I was going to type Madeline up until I wrote this sentence, honestly. However, Mitchell was easier to feel sorry for. Madeline seemed to have trouble standing up for herself when it mattered. She seems to be angry with Leonard over and over but be won over by small and sudden gestures. She wants to take care of him so badly that she doesn’t take care of herself and gets into a very bad situation. Mitchell, on the other hand, is searching to find himself and what he really wants. I can appreciate that in a character, even if he gets to the end of the book and hasn’t really found the answer.

It was easier to relate to Mitchell than Madeline, and not just because Mitchell is from Detroit. I found Madeline cornered, stuck into decisions that were bad for her with no way out. She had family members telling her that she was going in a bad direction and didn’t listen, going that way regardless. She needed help but Leonard was in a greater need so she got no attention. She was easy to pity.

Jeffrey Eugenides
Image via Harvard

I liked hearing about Mitchell’s time in Europe. I’ve been before and I could relate to his travels there more than India. Again, because I plan to go myself this summer, I found some escape in this part of the story. Though it’s a bit crazy how much technology has changed travel since the 1980s!

Madeline’s time on Cape Cod was really tough for me to read. She was so trapped and her dependence and her stubbornness kept here there when she really should have gotten out. It was her last chance to make a break and she couldn’t take it and felt like a nurse. I felt really bad for her.

My audiobook was narrated by David Pittu. I didn’t like the voice he used for women. It was very nasal and I thought it made them all sound whiney. Madeline’s mom was the worst, but none of them came off favorably. Other than that, I felt he did well but I wish he’d used a less affected voice for female dialogue.

The book pokes fun at its own namesake, the marriage plot. Eugenides gave an interview at the end of my audiobook where he talked about wanting to write a marriage plot after the rise of feminism and show how that movement changed the marriage plot. In the book, Madeline has a lot more power than the heroines of Brontë or Austen heroines. However, she’s still stuck in a situation she doesn’t want to be in and realizes how the dissolution of her marriage could ruin her life. I found this really fascinating when I heard the interview and I wish I’d heard it halfway through the book instead of at the end. It would have been too many spoilers at the beginning, though.

Writer’s Takeaway: The flashback structure really ruined this book for me. Starting on the last day of college and flashing back through the four previous years was a bad way to start. Having Madeline wake up at home and flashing back to her engagement and honeymoon was even worse. This is something I’ll have to work at avoiding in my writing.

A bit slow, but a great set of characters and good pacing (besides the flashbacks). Four out of Five Stars.

This is my first book of the year and, consequently, my first book for the When Are You Reading? Challenge 2018, fulfilling the 1980-1999 time period.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Book Review No. 31- The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides | Vishy’s Blog
Book Review – The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides | Realizing Grace
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides | Friends of Atticus


9 Responses to “Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (4/5)”

  1. whatcathyreadnext January 15, 2018 at 12:42 PM #

    I found your comments about the structural flaws you found in the book really interesting. I do think flashbacks have become very common in books nowadays and it doesn’t always work, just leaves the reader confused (especially if it’s not well signposted). I read a book recently where the time jumps occurred mid-chapter making it easy to get confused about the chronology of events. I loved how you wrote about the characters, what you did and didn’t like about them and the decisions they made.


    • Sam January 15, 2018 at 1:10 PM #

      Thanks! I think I notice timeline structure a lot more since I write myself. The other Eugenides book I read was told as a complete memory but that memory was chronological (Middlesex). I liked that a lot more than this back-and-Firth that left me confused. The book is still enjoyable, though! Happy reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. anovelglimpse January 15, 2018 at 4:04 PM #

    I wanted to read this book when it came out. I never did, but I still want to read it when I see it. I’m happy it was good! Great review.


    • Sam January 15, 2018 at 6:49 PM #

      Thanks! It’s an interesting twist on the marriage plot, bringing it into modern times. Eugenides did a good job with his characters and I really liked it. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. silverbuttonbooks January 15, 2018 at 9:24 PM #

    Sometimes I like the occasional “ah-ha” flashback but for the most part I totally agree – they are so overused and often distracting. This book is one I see everywhere but I think I can safely skip it. Great review!


    • Sam January 16, 2018 at 7:15 AM #

      Thanks! I would say if you want to read Eugenides, I liked Middlesex better. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. thebrightspark January 16, 2018 at 8:44 AM #

    I found Madeline cornered, stuck into decisions that were bad for her with no way out.

    Oooof. Just that sentence tells me this probably isn’t for me!


    • Sam January 16, 2018 at 9:48 AM #

      It makes since if you think about Eugenides trying to write a marriage plot as was common in Austen and her contemporaries. At the time, women had little recourse and few options. It was hard to read it set in the 80s, though. Happy reading! (Even if it’s not this book)



  1. Book Review: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (5/5) | Taking On a World of Words - September 14, 2020

    […] I really liked Eugenides’ Middlesex and wanted to read his entire backlog immediately. I read The Marriage Plot and found it was okay, but not what I had hoped for. I’d heard amazing things about this book […]


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