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Ivy League Love

by Randy Boyagoda

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus, 416 pp., $28)

Boy meets girl. Boy likes girl. Girl likes boy, maybe. Girl meets new boy. Girl really likes that boy, she thinks. Now what? By its very structure and elements, the love triangle promises tension, longing, secrecy, betrayal, hopefulness, and reversal: It’s no great surprise, then, that it’s long been a conventional premise for storytelling. What might be surprising, however, is novelist Jeffrey Eugenides’s decision to use a love triangle as one of the two primary premises for his latest novel, The Marriage Plot; the other premise, which is obviously related and still more conventional, is evident in the book’s title. The source of surprise is the radical departure that this novel ostensibly represents from its predecessors, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. The first, a critical darling that was made into a precious Sofia Coppola film, could be described, in bare terms, as follows: Girl has to grow up. Girl gives up instead and kills herself. Repeat, for all of her sisters. Eugenides’s second novel, a Pulitzer Prize–winner that has sold 3 million copies, could likewise be described in simple terms: Girl meets self. Self is also boy. Boy-girl lives out in-between life.

With a pair of earlier novels, in other words, that respectively dealt with a devoutly Catholic family of youthful, unmarried sisters successively killing themselves according to a set of mysterious reasons, and a sweet, smart, transgendered Greek-immigrant kid’s life in suburban Michigan following his eccentric family’s coming-to-America saga, Eugenides both exposed and fulfilled an upscale reading public’s voracious appetite for literary fiction that’s motivated by progressive-minded sentiments and traffics in themes and issues that are easy-to-swallow-as-difficult.

His new novel, by comparison, is ostensibly difficult-to-swallow because, by its linked premises — a love triangle that’s constantly threatening and promising to break into a marriage pairing — it seems too easy, and even passé. In fact, Eugenides signals his awareness of this likely reaction early on, through the complaints of a cranky old literature professor about the late-Western literary indifference to a core feature of human experience and of the Western tradition:

In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. . . . As far as [the cranky old professor] was concerned, marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel. Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t. You had to read historical fiction. You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies. Afghani novels, Indian novels. You had to go, literally, back in time.

We’ll assume this East Coast academic has somehow never read John Updike and let his complaint stand, because it so obviously serves as the author’s apologia for what he’s trying to do with this novel, including, incidentally, going back in time to find a historical moment and setting apparently more amenable to a traditional, marriage-plotted story than is America, circa 2011. Revealingly, as we’ll see, he chooses Brown University, and the local and international circuits frequented by Ivy League graduates in the early 1980s.

We enter this world through the story of an intelligent and beautiful young woman named Madeleine, who’s uncertain about what to do with her life following graduation. She must decide between two suitors she’s been involved with at Brown, Mitchell and Leonard, who are both very intelligent but temperamental opposites. At the same time, she has to figure out how to transform her successful undergraduate career as a dutiful student and incorrigible lover of 19th-century English novels into a viable professional life. (Spoiler alert: Deciding between competing offers from Columbia and Yale for graduate school proves easier and more enjoyable for Madeleine than deciding between Mitchell and Leonard.)

Books such as this one are usually marketed as “tender coming-of-age” stories (as far as the contemporary publishing industry is concerned, no one comes of age except tenderly). But more impressively, at least initially, Eugenides has attempted a novel of vocation, or what he insightfully describes at one point as a young person’s desire and struggle to realize a “cohesive self.” The novel’s main characters — Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard — spend the entirety of the novel in search of just such cohesion, discerning, individually and with and through and sometimes against each other, the relationships and professions to which they are called by their talents and time and place in the world, while simultaneously confronting problems of religious faith, crippling psychological disorder, and crippling parental expectations.

To reveal his characters’ vocations to themselves and to us out of such a complex of concerns, Eugenides makes smart use of chance encounters, misunderstood intentions, unread letters, breathless departures and arrivals, timely coincidences, and other such stock features of 19th-century fiction. These moves — which take form, for instance, as a sudden marriage proposal late in the novel, and then an unexpected reunion later still — are enjoyable, indeed exciting to come across regardless of their obvious artifice, but they are unfortunately submerged in a book that’s far too much taken with its apparent charms. The Marriage Plot features many play-by-play passages about sex, whether with oneself or with someone else, that made me long for the taste and decorum of a damp Harlequin novel. (“Leonard’s girth filled Madeleine up in a way that felt not only satisfying, but breathtaking. Every millimeter of movement, in or out, was perceptible along her inner sheath.”)

The book also wears its learning far too proudly, whether the subject is 19th-century fiction, postmodern literary theory, microbiology, Christian theology, manic depression, European casinos, Manhattan real estate, or India. To be sure, the range of material that Eugenides draws on is impressive, but the consistent effect is curiously flat: Whether the subject is the reproductive behavior of yeast cells or the theological implications of caring for the lame and sick or the m.o. for getting an apartment with good light and close proximity to Central Park, it all feels the same. These are matters of interchangeable significance; they serve less as an array of discrete, packed realities for the playing out of intensely lived lives than as occasions for author and character alike to demonstrate the admirable virtues and the admirable vices of the late-American meritocracy.

Mitchell’s tired of traveling through Europe with his increasingly gay friend, but should he go on to India and volunteer with Mother Teresa on his own? Leonard is fighting with his Boston doctor over the dosage of his antidepressants while falling behind on his Cape Cod research-fellowship gig, so why doesn’t he just administer an experimental clinical trial to himself? Madeleine is upset and confused about the nature of her commitment to Leonard, but why can’t the waiters in her Paris hotel leave her to sip wine in peace while she thinks things through? Finally, most ridiculously, at long last Mitchell momentarily gets his girl, but he’s confused: “Was this really Madeleine’s breast he was taking into his mouth, or was it something he had dreamed, or was he dreaming now?” This might be the least manly line in all of American literature.

Close to novel’s end, Eugenides has a character describe Madeleine as a “lonely misfortunate, and inward as a governess.” The obvious invocation of a canonical marriage-plot novel, Jane Eyre, inadvertently exposes the fundamental problem with The Marriage Plot: By her station, her origins, and her prospects, Jane really is a misfortunate for the entirety of Brontë’s novel, until, wondrously, she’s not; whereas Madeleine, by her station, her origins, and her prospects, is remarkably fortunate except for those moments she’s not, and while these are moments that cause immediate and extensive emotional turmoil and threaten to misdirect her trajectory permanently, they never really do.

At base, it seems, Eugenides likes his characters a little too much. In this way, he’s on the far side of a novelist like Jonathan Franzen, who at times doesn’t seem to like his characters enough. Unfortunately, as a result of their author’s overweening affection for them, the characters in The Marriage Plot suffer through difficulties that feel, from start to finish, remarkably cosseted. To be sure, the highly privileged have souls too. It’s just hard to be ultimately moved by the experiences of people whose life-crises tend to be, in the end, the rough equivalent of learning that the J. Crew catalogue is out of the hairshirt they’ve ordered.

– Mr. Boyagoda, a novelist and critic, is a professor of American studies at Ryerson University in Toronto. He is writing a biography of Richard John Neuhaus, and his second novel, Beggar’s Feast, was recently published in Canada.

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