“The Marriage Plot” Thickens, Kinda

Disclaimer: I really try hard to keep spoilers out of these things, but it’s hard to explain some of my issues with this particular novel without revealing a few key details. So if you haven’t read it and you don’t like spoilers, you probably should just stop after the first few paragraphs.

When I was sixteen, I read Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex for the first time, and it quickly became one of my favorite books. For starters, as a native of Detroit, the way Eugenides weaves the history of the Motor City in with the history of the Stephanides family immediately appealed to me. With all the works of fiction about Detroit that have gotten so many things wrong (Detroit 187, for example, makes its first mistake in the title), it was so nice to see someone get things right – and friends from other states have told me the book made them interested in Detroit’s history, which is always something. I also had a crush on a clarinetist at the time I read the book, which made the scenes with Milton and Tessie (yes, those scenes) probably a lot more interesting and less disgusting than they would have been otherwise. Plus, one glance at my high school voluntary reading list – favorites from those years also include Lolita, Brave New World and The Unbearable Lightness of Being – would show you that I took a certain pleasure in reading the sorts of books that would gross out my more prudish classmates. I felt like a rebel in my own little, nerdy way.

And then there’s the queerness of Middlesex. As the title punnily suggests, the protagonist is intersex, with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. As I have discussed the book with others more recently, I have found out that a lot of people considered Eugenides’s treatment of the subject “fetishist,” that he saw Cal’s intersex identity as some bizarre twist rather than treating it with the respect it deserved. At age sixteen, still closeted and overall new to the world of queer studies, I can’t say I would have been able to tell the difference. Yet, regardless of what you think of the novel, it is certainly among the best-known works of fiction on the intersex community, and is one of the most discussed “queer” novels of the past decade. So, with that in mind, I thought you might be interested in my thoughts about his new novel, The Marriage Plot.

The Marriage Plot is unique among Eugenides’s novels, which also includes his premiere work The Virgin Suicides, in not being set in or around Detroit, although one of the main characters, obvious author stand-in Mitchell Grammaticus, is a native. Instead, it follows three early-80s graduates of Brown University as they go through their first year out of college. Unlike Middlesex, it doesn’t have overtly queer themes; while there are gay and bisexual supporting characters, all of the protagonists are straight. In fact, unlike the unusual story elements of the previous two novels, The Marriage Plot is a pretty straightforward novel about a girl caught between two different boys, the “safe” choice and the “rebellious” choice, the titular “marriage plot.”

It is interesting to read this book as I’m in the middle of a class on Jane Austen, all of whose novels revolve around the “marriage plot.” Eugenides frames his book as a modern, feminist re-telling of those stories, made obvious by heroine Madeline Hanna’s desire to become a feminist scholar of 19th-century literature. Austen’s novels also tend to involve a “safe choice” and a “rebellious choice”; her heroines just about always end up with the former. Some of them are clear –you know Catherine Morland isn’t going to end up with John Thorpe, for example – but with others, she keeps you guessing for a while. Nowadays, most of us know the ending of Pride and Prejudice, but if you manage to come into it fresh, it does take a while to realize that Darcy is the good egg and Wickham is the jerk.

This story starts out the same way. Madeleine mentions at the beginning of the book that Mitchell is the sort of boy you could “bring home to your parents” and Leonard isn’t, which is precisely why she likes Leonard and not Mitchell. Her story is a little too clearly set-up as a lesson in how her priorities in boys are messed up, another plot that is common to Austen novels. However, Madeleine has a self-awareness that the Austen heroines who go through this journey lack, and which makes what happens to her a lot less believable. Like Austen, Eugenides plays with it, but not as much as I would have hoped. He makes you feel sorry for Leonard, and gives Mitchell some negative qualities but, at least for me, I was still rooting for Mitchell throughout the novel.

What's a girl to do?

What I really don’t get about the book is how Eugenides or anyone could have considered it a “feminist retelling” of the marriage plot. The description makes it seem that Madeleine’s studies in marriage-plot novels would play a huge role in it, but they really don’t; you never even find out what her “thoughts on the marriage plot” (as she titles her thesis!) are. Instead, Madeleine’s story, like that of far too many heroines in literature, is mainly about her interactions with boys and, particularly, how her tending to Leonard as he struggles with his extreme bipolar disorder ends up consuming her life post-graduation. This contrasts it with the Austen novels that it references; one of the most interesting things about Austen’s books, and the reason that she gets so much play in feminist circles, is that she flips the usual script in terms of who is the fully-fleshed-out character and who is just the love interest. The men are the one-dimensional love interests in Austen (for the most part, there are exceptions), while the women are the interesting, compelling characters. This is true not just with the independent, feisty Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, but even more passive characters like Fanny Price from Mansfield Park. While men had all the power in the actual world of Regency-era England, women were the focus, the major players in the world of Austen (I’m using Austen as my example because I have to admit, I’m not as well-versed in 19th-century English lit overall as Madeleine is.)

Eugenides seems to justify the “feminist” side of it by having Madeleine end up single at the end, but it is not through taking control of her own destiny that she gets out of her destructive relationship with Leonard. It is through Leonard realizing that he is ruining Madeleine’s life and walking out on it himself, and her parents talking sense into her. She may have had agency, but she never executed it, preferring to let others make decisions for her. Early in the novel, she almost doesn’t end up with a place to live post-graduation because she just can’t accept her breakup with Leonard, and is just lucky that it turns out to be temporary and her previous plans to live with him don’t fall through after all. She so utterly surrenders control over her life to everyone else, and boys particularly, that I just couldn’t see how she worked as a “feminist” heroine in any sense.

At least i have this teddy bear

The relationship-focus of Madeleine’s storylines also just made them – and her – much less interesting. The boys’ stories were way more compelling. In the Leonard-focused chapters, it delves into the history of his illness, how his depression in his early high school years made him a lackluster student with no motivation in anything, how his mania in the last two years turned him into the kind of stellar student who can get into Brown on scholarship, how his abusive home life factored into his problems, the interesting characters he met in the psychiatric ward. Mitchell’s journey – both his literal journey, which consisted of a trip around Europe, North Africa and India with his friend Larry, and a spiritual journey, which includes volunteering at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitutes – was even better, and the part that felt most like Middlesex to me. My enjoyment is probably because Mitchell’s story is the least romance-focused of all of them since, while he pines away for Madeleine throughout his travels, the focus during that part is still on his religious beliefs and his discoveries on the road.

Also, the Mitchell parts are also the gayest parts of the book, since there’s a side-plot about his friend Larry’s discovery of his homosexuality/bisexuality (the book doesn’t specify which, though Larry has a girlfriend at the start of the novel, a caricature of college feminists who clashes with Mitchell) and Mitchell’s realization that Larry went on the trip because of his feelings for him, feelings Mitchell can’t return because he’s straight. (Sound familiar?) It was yet another thing that I wished the book had explored more, but it was still nice to get that little touch of queerness in a pretty relentlessly straight book.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the book, but overall I was a little underwhelmed by it. I wasn’t as floored by it as I was by Middlesex, but maybe I was expecting a bit too much out of it. Maybe I was putting too much stock in the book jacket, which made it seem like there would be this huge intellectual discussion about books alongside the romantic plots. There was some of that in the early part of the novel, which flashed back to the three characters’ lives during their college years, including the courses they took, as exposition for the post-grad stuff. There’s some interesting discussion about the divide in the early ’80s between more traditional literary scholars and devotees of newer approaches like semiotics. But at least in Madeline and Leonard’s sections, all that disappeared once they left school, except for a short section where Madeleine goes to a seminar for other fans of Regency and Victorian novels. Mitchell’s sections were really the only ones that fulfilled that promise, interspersing his musings on religion with musings about Madeleine.

This review seems kinda negative, but this is actually a good book! – if you know what to expect. It’s a good romantic novel and college novel. Don’t go in with high expectations of deep discussions on literature or philosophy, and you will probably really love it.

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Rose is a 24-year-old Detroit native currently living in Boston, where she is working on her master's degree in musicology. Classical music, history, 1960s rock bands, cartoons, cats, Diet Coke, old movies and the Detroit Tigers are just a few of her favorite things. Besides Autostraddle, she works as a streaming reviewer for Anime New Network and has also written for Bitch and her own media-analysis blog. You should follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.

Rose has written 69 articles for us.

13 Comments

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    thanks so much for writing this! i’ve been hesitating to read this novel basically because of your final point — i’m afraid it’s going to be underwhelming. on top of that, i’m not a huge fan of books-about-books, and every plot summary i’ve read just makes it seem like a more complex, more literary brett easton ellis novel. i’ll probs still pick it up anyway, but it’s nice to hear what to expect from someone who feels similarly about eugenides’s other works.

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    thanks for this review! I keep reading criticism of this novel that if it had been written by a woman, it would’ve been categorized as chick lit and never gotten the exposure that it has. But as long as it’s a dude writing about a woman’s love life, let’s splash it all over the NYtimes book review!

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      The entire time I was reading this review, I kept thinking that! “Sounds like typical chick lit… What’s the big deal?”

      I haven’t read Middlesex and I guess I sort of skimmed over the author’s name because I didn’t notice it was a man.

      This “Ohhh!” moment sponsored by you.

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      To be fair, I’d personally be hesitant to categorize it as “chick lit.” This review focused on the romance parts, which are the predominant plot in the book, but there are a lot of interesting subplots – like Madeleine’s literary interests, college intellectual trends, Leonard’s mental illness, Mitchell’s religious journey – which aren’t directly related to romance, and which made the novel more than just a girl-is-caught-between-two-boys type of story. Eugenides’s works usually have multiple threads running (e.g. Middlesex is about Cal coming to terms with his gender identity but also about the history of Detroit and also a family saga and also about Greek-America) which is why I find them so compelling.

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    I’m kinda ashamed to admit that until I picked up Middlesex a couple of months ago, I thought it was a Regency-era novel about England?

    Anyway, I’m in the middle of it now and it is so fantastic. I had planned to read The Marriage Plot after I finished Middlesex. That’s because I expected that it would be as queerly awesome as Middlesex. I still want to read it but it has slipped down a few rungs on my priority ladder. Thanks for the review!

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      Make no mistake, it’s still a very good novel, it’s just a very DIFFERENT one from Middlesex. It’s more that I wouldn’t necessarily say “If you loved Middlesex you’ll love this, too” – it really depends on *what* you like about Middlesex and Eugenides’s writing in general.

      As I said above, the Mitchell parts were the ones that reminded me most of Middlesex and its coming-of-age flavor, and it also probably has something to do with the fact that Mitchell comes from a very similar background to Cal Stephanides.

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    I’m also a big Eugenides fan – loved Middlesex, but liked The Virgin Suicides as well. I read The Marriage Plot this weekend, and I agree with this review. However! I really enjoyed the book, and finished it in less than 24 hours.

    The first half of it, I spent a lot of the time thinking how I was going to submit it to betterbooktitles.com under the title “#firstworldproblems.” But I also spent a lot of the time marveling at how spot-on Eugenides described the weird, hyper-intellectual college environment. I mean, Madeleine was kind of boring, but truth be told I went to college with a lot of Madeleines, who get way overinvested in these totally hypnotizing, kind of weird boys for no real reason. Leonard’s and Mitchell’s sections were great – Leonard’s surprised me in particular, because I was totally ready for him to be this flaky two-dimensional dude who was just into self-medication and self-importantly pontificating, so I was really impressed to see him fleshed out in such a way that, towards the end, I felt for him even more than Madeleine. Eugenides also did a good job describing the disintegration of Madeleine and Leonard’s marriage at the end. I was sold on them truly loving each other, but being doomed because of Leonard’s brain chemistry.

    I agree with Dana’s comment that if a woman had written this it would never get as much attention, BUT I also wouldn’t characterize it as chick lit. Granted I am somewhat of a literary fiction snob and don’t really even know who counts as chick lit these days – Jennifer Weiner? Jodi Picoult? – but I would compare it more readily to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and Man of My Dreams (which are sort of variations on a theme).

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      “But I also spent a lot of the time marveling at how spot-on Eugenides described the weird, hyper-intellectual college environment.”

      Yeah, that was one thing that, in retrospect, I wish I had gone into more detail about in this review. Even as a college student now, rather than in the early ’80s, I’ve definitely taken classes that were a lot like Madeleine’s semiotics class.

      I guess that maybe what puzzles me about Madeleine’s attraction to Leonard is that, as a bi girl, I’ve never really been into those kinds of guys, and never quite understood the appeal of them. As far as guys go (I like different things in each gender) I tend to be more into bookish, nerdy guys, the ones who are usually cast as the “safe” choice in these kinds of books, which is probably why I liked Mitchell better (although, he’s kind of a douche). That said, I totally know the kinds of girls you describe. And after a while reading the book, I did really feel for Leonard, and while it was sad to see how he was destroying Madeleine’s life, you also feel for the way that he’s aware of it and knows there’s nothing he can do about it, because it’s coming from his mental illness. Even though I didn’t want them to end up together, when he finally did leave her in the New York subway station, I found that absolutely heartbreaking. You can really feel how painful that was for both of them.

      Also, I’ve read Prep too and it does remind me a lot of that novel! I was looking at Sittenfeld’s American Wife in the bookstore today, have you read it/would you recommend it?

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      Also, if you’re wondering why I didn’t mention Virgin Suicides that much, I’m ashamed to admit I actually haven’t read it yet, though it’s definitely on my to-read list right now. And I’ve seen the movie with Kirsten Dunst.

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