Reading Romance

Jeffrey Eugenides' 'The Marriage Plot' wants to know what love is

Jeffrey Eugenides
Jeffrey Eugenides

"You can read The Marriage Plot in a postmodern way; you can read it as a realist novel. There's things in it from depression to religion to college romance," says Jeffrey Eugenides of his new novel – his first since 2002's Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, a huge bestseller that set a stratospheric bar for what would come next.

That would be the deceptively accessible, realist novel that Eugenides will be at BookPeople to discuss Thursday, Oct. 27. The title refers to the subject and structure of most Victorian novels – or at least Victorian "ladies' novels" – in which money, social station, and desire complicate a plot that is meant to lead to a marriage.

The Marriage Plot does contain a love triangle between three students at Brown University, whom we first meet on their graduation day in 1982. At the center is Madeleine Hanna, a beautiful, comfortably monied lit scholar studying 19th century novels through the filter of semiotics, the controversial critical theory that was storming the ivory tower gates at the time. Madeleine falls for Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant and handsome biology student who suffers from manic depression. Inevitably, there is also Mitchell Grammaticus, the good guy and spiritual seeker, hopelessly in love with Madeleine, who considers him just a friend.

The plot plays out against a background of Talking Heads songs and Fiorucci boots, Betsey Johnson dresses and coffee shop Derrida, but the setting is not about period-piece details. Rather, it's about the juncture where people – particularly schooled people, particularly at Brown – changed the way they thought about language and its influences.

"The Marriage Plot is a novel about the extent to which reading influences our expectations in love, and how that leads to decisions that have very real consequences in our lives," says Eugenides. "I was trying to write a marriage plot in a time when you can't write a marriage plot anymore. I realized that the marriage plot only exists inside our heads now as a kind of romantic dream that we seek almost against our will. Sometimes that works out, and sometimes it doesn't, but I wanted to examine how that played out in my three young characters."

In other words, it's yet another momentous departure for Eugenides, one he accomplishes with intrigue, clarity, and humanity – something that might just sail over that stratospheric bar.

Jeffrey Eugenides will be at BookPeople (603 N. Lamar) Thursday, Oct. 27, at 7pm.

For an extended interview with Eugenides, see "Romance in Rewrite."

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Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot, Middlesex

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