Jeffrey Eugenides, famous for several books, was new to me when I picked up The Marriage Plot, a gift from my sister-in-law.
The Marriage Plot is sort of a romance, with a romantic triangle consisting of three Brown University students. One studies Biology, one is a Religious Studies student, and the third studies Semiotics. Madeleine, the Semiotics student, supplies the title for The Marriage Plot; she is writing her senior thesis on the marriage plots that underlaid the works of Austin, Bronte, Eliot, and other Victorian-era authors. Going into the book I thought this little detail was going to prove interesting and was greatly anticipating it, but it ended up being just a tossaway item, one in a fairly long list of tantalizing details of the book that only seemed to result in false hopes.
Our three protagonists finish college, travel the world, move on to graduate school, have adventures, yet somehow don't really seem to change terribly much, no matter how many earnest conversations on Derrida and Barthes ensue, or how many vivid encounters they have on their travels (one of them volunteers in one of Mother Teresa's convents in Calcutta).
One of my favorite parts of the book was an episode that occurred several times in which Madeleine experiences the odd feeling that she's somehow living out one of Ludwig Bemelmans's children's books:
On the day before they flew back to the States, Madeleine left Leonard in the room while she went out to buy him cigarettes. The summer weather was lovely, the colors of the flowers in the park so bright they hurt her eyes. Up ahead, she saw an amazing sight, a troop of schoolgirls being led by a nun. They were crossing the street, heading into the courtyard of their school. Smiling for the first time in weeks, Madeleine watched them proceed. Ludwig Bemelmans had written sequels to Madeline. In one, Madeline had joined a gypsy circus. In another, she'd been saved from drowning by a dog. But, despite all her adventures, Madeline had never gotten any older than eight.
Bemelmans, I think, made no bones about his Madeline: she was a child, and he was telling stories to children about children. But what sort of book is The Marriage Plot? At the end, it just sort of halts, having run out of steam more than anything else.
At some point, the voice also told Mitchell that, in addition to never living with Madeleine, he would never go to divinity school, either. It was unclear what he was going to do with his life, but he wasn't going to be a monk, or a minister, or even a scholar.
Eugenides appears to have just become bored of his three characters, and, having demonstrated that all failed to live up to their early promise, he washes his hands of them and walks away. The Marriage Plot seemed like an odd little book from an otherwise much-ballyhooed author. Probably I just didn't get it. Or maybe, it was just that sort of book.