When you start reading a novel with the highest expectations, chances are you’ll be disappointed when you turn the last page. Unfortunately, this was the case with The Marriage Plot, a novel I have looked forward to before its title was even announced.
The Marriage Plot is a good novel, though, let me state that first, and if it had been written by an unknown author, I might have appreciated it more. But in this world, it was written by the author of Middlesex, a book I so thoroughly enjoyed and admired, that I read its sequel with a good deal of anticipation.
It might seem unfair, that one work creates expectations for another work, that a novel is not judged on its own merits. Still, Jeffrey Eugenides could have foreseen this type of judgement. Having chosen semiotics as one of his themes, he must have realized that books refer to other books, and that human experiences are similarly related: we experience life through the accounts of our earlier experiences, and those of others. What we read and hear, influences how we perceive and judge reality. Everything reminds us of what has been noted before: we live in a pre-experienced world.
Eugenides is playing with this concept throughout his novel. His chosen motto is from La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” He often describes objects with popular references (“black iron fences like those in a Charles Addams cartoon or a Lovecraft story”). He even lets one of his characters state that his goal in life is “to become an adjective”, to create a unique universe to which others can refer, like Kafkaesque or Tolstoyan. To say that The Marriage Plot was not Eugenidesean enough for me, could also be interpreted as a compliment.
I loved the utterly American setting (a college on the Northeastern coast in the early nineteen eighties), I marveled at the style (“What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative!”) and I was interested in reading about manic depression and Christian mysticism. The novel is also very engaging; Eugenides does not miss one detail to bring you back into a time and place. He quotes the movies his characters watch, describes the food they crave, mentions the tracks they play in the bar and the photos they have framed on their walls. On top of that, the novel provided me with the joy of recognition: Derrida, Barthes and their delicious incomprehensibility. It was all quite entertaining.
So why was I disappointed? Madeleine, the female protagonist, does not develop into a character for whom I can cheer. The long opening section is written from her point of view, and she does not come across as particularly interesting. Even after she gets over the hangover she is presumably suffering from, she has little to show for herself. Nearly half of the novel is given to her, but as well read and clever as the people around her seem to be, Madeleine herself does not spark. Things just seem to happen to her and she responds haphazardly. Her thoughts are often limited to reflections about her sex life, her looks, her moderate career ambitions, and the lack of party-time. Why the two male characters fall in love with her and become obsessed, remains a mystery. Perhaps they are not so profound after all, falling for a pretty girl, whose looks are nonetheless never described to be amazing.
By the end, when the male characters take the stage more often, the novel becomes better, but ultimately The Marriage Plot does not deliver what it promises. From the opening lines of the book, the title and the interest Madeleine has in the role of matrimony in fictional plots, I had expected a story in which the reading of Victorian novels would somehow influence the outcome. I had expected a love story of our times, something to replace the epic and romantic stories of our past. Not necessary with a happy ending, but with something that would show us how we perceive love differently, because we have read the stories of our past. Perhaps Eugenides realized too late that this replacing love story does not exist. The Marriage Plot is therefore mainly a novel about literature (and its limitations), a metafiction for semiotics to explore, and says little about our lives. Or in the thoughts of Madeleine: “If you used your head, if you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental, if you recognized that being ‘in love’ was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny. Madeleine knew all that. The problem was, it didn’t work.”
More opinions? The NYT is moderately positive, the Guardian is not convinced (“It certainly doesn’t play to the idiosyncratic strengths of its gifted author”), and the Washington Post calls it “exceptionally witty and poignant”.