According to Jeffrey Eugenides' character, Madeleine Hanna, "the marriage plot" began with Jane Austen, and is a story involving courting rituals, proposals and misunderstandings, and ultimately ending in marriage. The plot then progressed through Henry James and Leo Tolstoy, to the point where the marriage is not a happy ending, but only the beginning of a relationship where the woman is hopelessly trapped. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the marriage plot had died out. In 2011, Eugenides brought it back, with a modern twist.
The Marriage Plot, as written by Eugenides, is set in the early 1980s on a college campus, and involving three key characters who are about to graduate. The first is Madeleine, who is writing her thesis on the marriage plot, and hopes to become "a Victorianist." Madeleine romantically uses fictional characters as her role models, starting first with Ludwig Bemelmans' character with whom she shares a name. Madeleine is in awe of Leonard, who grew up in Oregon, but now attends Brown with Maddy, and is very popular with the ladies. Mitchell is another Brown student, who happens to be in love with Maddy, and wants to pursue a study of divinity. Like Eugenides, Mitchell comes from Grosse Pointe, MI. Eugenides' brings the marriage plot into the semi-modern day by playing the love triangle out in an era where women had opportunities to establish careers, live as successful single women, and when need be, divorce without social stigma.
Another twentieth century aspect of The Marriage Plot is that Leonard has been diagnosed with manic depression. Maddy fell in love with him during a manic period, but he didn't realize his love for her until the depression took hold. While all of Maddy's friends and family members warn her against trying to save Leonard, Maddy just can't help trying to rescue him from his illness. Eugenides does a great job of showing the manic depression through its highs and lows, and the reader can sympathize with both Maddy and Leonard, and understand the challenges that their relationship will face.
It was a bit of a cop out for Eudenides to set his book about love after the women's movement in the eighties, even though it was published in 2011. In the intervening years between the eighties and now, I would like to think that relationships and opportunities for women have changed. On the other hand, maybe he is deliberately leaving the door open for him or another author to write the twenty-first century marriage plot.
The Marriage Plot was a NYT Notable for 2011. I'm counting this book for the Rewind, Audiobook, and I Love Library Books challenges.
Next up on CD: The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
Still Reading: American Woman by Susan Choi