This is a guest post written by Hannah Gillow Kloster.
As a huge fan of Jeffrey Eugenides’ previous works, I was looking forward to reading his latest major novel, The Marriage Plot. On its blurb, the book purports to be about an English Major writing her thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, whilst around her deconstructionism is performing a revolution in English departments all over the world; so far, so good. However, for a book that studies the enormous gap between the safe, formulaic literature of the nineteenth century and the cutting-edge literary and philosophy scene of early eighties academia, it is remarkably un-ironic about it’s own throw-backism.
The blurb continues to state that ‘As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different suitors, intervenes’. The positive thing about this is that at least the blurb does not exaggerate. Madeleine does very little other than study her literary heroines, and sit around waiting for love to intervene. There is very little active searching for love on her part. It hits her, not even like a ton of bricks, more like a handful of not very large pebbles. And as her brilliant, erratic, mentally unstable boyfriend Leonard continues to be of increasingly unsound mind, she mooches around waiting for him to be a) the brilliant man she fell in love with and b) off his meds so they can have sex. But unlike Homer’s Penelope, one of the female literary heroines to which Eugenides compares her, she doesn’t even seem to have free will, much less a plan.
I am not ashamed to say I was one of the many English students whose justification for studying literature was “well, I mean, I love reading and I love the classics, like, I read Jane Austen when I was ten and it was sooo good”. However, I, like most English students, both grew out of Jane Austen, and embraced her extreme irony and her not-really-emancipated-but-one-could-argue-that-they-are women. Madeleine seems to have done neither. And much like Austen herself was criticised for ignoring the world around her (notably the fact that Napoleon was on a rampage throughout most of her writing life), Madeleine seems oblivious to most of the developments that have taken place since the early eighteen hundreds, (apart from the fact that women are allowed to want sex. She got that part. But quickly forgets it again when her man is feeling unsexy and chubs and needs her to take care of him).
Unsurprisingly, there is also a third part to this love affair – the intellectual, insecure, religious, bare-footed (and oh-so-ironically named) Mitchell Grammaticus. Yes. He has lusted over Madeleine from afar for most of his academic life, while she places him firmly in the friend zone. I guess one could say he is channelling a bit of Mr. Collins. But his place in the novel seems less about challenging Madeleine and Leonard’s romance, and more about giving Eugenides’ a chance to poke some harmless fun at middle-class boys who “find inner peace” and embrace religious mysticism, but only until their money runs out and they come back from India to return to real life. Much like Eugenides’ take on English lit graduate Madeleine, Grammaticus is disappointingly cliché.
Though it contains good moments, witticisms, and nails quite a few of the characters one would traditionally find in an English department, The Marriage Plot lacks the poignancy and extreme insight of Eugenides’ earlier works. Furthermore, considering that a large part of the audience for this novel, or so I suspect, will be English Literature graduates such as myself, they will not find many shocking or powerful truths. At best, The Marriage Plot is a fond if ridiculing nostalgia-trip to the days of pretentious fellow students and hungover seminars. At worst, though, it is a remarkably ‘unfeministic’ portrait of an exceptionally dull girl, with even less of an inner life than Miss Jane Bennett, who I think all English literature students will agree is dull indeed.
Published in the UK by Fourth Estate in October 2011.