If you’ve read Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pultizer-Prize in fiction, Middlesex, and you’re expecting something similar in his new novel, The Marriage Plot, then you will be disappointed. But if you set aside that expectation and you’re prepared to enjoy a totally different type of novel penned by one of the best writers of our time, then you will enjoy The Marriage Plot as much as I did.
A very general way to describe the plot of The Marriage Plot is that it’s a love triangle: boy is convinced girl is his destined mate, girl is in love with another boy, that other boy is mentally ill. No, this is not lighthearted stuff. At a more cerebral level, this is a novel about books, reading, and how the experience shapes readers at any given time. All three main characters, intellectual Brown graduates, draw connections between their personal lives and the literary works they read. I found the reflections on literary theory works a bit difficult to trudge through — even though I spent most of my English Master’s program studying literary theory (I guess I didn’t enjoy the stuff too much). But don’t worry about understanding Barthes et al. The point is the influence and experience of books.
The strongest theme of The Marriage Plot is the cynical aspects of marriage. The novel explores three types of matrimony: ones that result from the temporary insanity of passionate love (indeed, that “honeymoon” period of any relationship is a time when lovers have irrational chemicals flowing through them), ones that result from societal propriety, and ones that result from true compatibility.
The novel concludes what we already know: true love and compatibility are rare. As for that Victorian notion of marriage as a virtue, that works if you’re content with that sort of thing. Eugenides makes a great example of this type of marriage via the female protagonist’s parents — the proper, composed mother and the strident father who steps in for the official business.
That leaves us with the third type of marriage: the kind resulting from the temporary insanity of passionate love. Eugenides literally exemplifies this through the relationship between the straitlaced girl (Madeleine) and the mentally-ill boy (Leonard). Madeleine, raised by clones of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett (of Pride and Prejudice), can’t help but fall madly in love with Leonard, who has manic-depression, a severe mental disorder marked by mood swings between mania and depression. Medications such as lithium have been largely successful in stabilizing these swings. But it’s common for manic-depressives to go off their medications due to the negative side-effects, and that’s exactly what Leonard does several times in the course of the novel. Thus, both Madeleine and Leonard confront the question: is it worth it to subject a partner to the sufferings of a severely mentally-ill person? For better or worse…or not?
Apart from Eugenides’ theme of marriage and how he uses literal madness to exemplify the madness that compels some couples to doomed matrimony, the author’s treatment of mental illness is sensitive, well-researched, and on-the-nose. I sympathized equally with Madeleine and Leonard, and how each are affected by mental illness. Madeleine loves Leonard, but his suffering is her suffering: she is often worried about his mental health, and she finds herself cleaning up the wreckage of Leonard’s manic sprees. Leonard suffers from his post-mania sprees and depression, and he’s painfully that he is the source of Madeleine’s suffering. It’s a conundrum.
In short, The Marriage Plot is well-crafted and well-written. I definitely recommend it.
My favorite passages:
- What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling.
- The worst part was that, as the years passed, these memories became, in the way you kept them in a secret box in your head, taking them out every so often to turn them over and over, something olike dear possessions. They were the key to your unhappiness. They were the evidence that life wasn’t fair. If you weren’t a lucky child, you didn’t know you weren’t lucky until you got older. And then it was all you ever thought about.
- All her life she’d avoided unbalanced people. She’d stayed away from the weird kids in elementary school. She’d avoided the gloomy, suicidal girls in high school who vomited up pills. What was it about crazy people that made you want to shun them? The futility of reasoning with them, certainly, but also something else, something like a fear of contagion. The casino, with its buzzing, smoke-filled air, seemed like a projection of Leonard’s mania, a howling zone full of the nightmare rich, opening their mouths to place bets or cry for alcohol. Madeleine had the urge to turn and flee. Taking one step forward would commit her to a life of doing the same. Of worrying about Leonard, of constantly keeping tabs on him, of wondering what had happened if he was a half hour late coming home. All she had to do was turn and go. No one would blame her.
- Outside, shadows were lengthening along the pavement. Madeleine stared out at the Broadway traffic, trying to stave off a rising feeling of hopelessness. She didn’t know how to cheer Leonard up anymore. Everything she tried brought the same result. She worried that Leonard would never be happy again, that he had lost the ability…Even worse, Madeleine knew that Leonard understood this. His suffering was sharpened by the knowledge that he was inflicting it on her. But he was unable to stop it.
- Let me tell you what happens when a person’s clinically depressed, Leonard began in his infuriating doctorly mode. What happens is that the brain sends out a signal that it’s dying. The depressed brain sends out this signal, and the body receives it, and after a while, the body thinks it’s dying too. And then it begins to shut down. That’s why depression hurts, Madeleine. That’s why it’s physically painful. The brain thinks it’s dying, and so the body thinks it’s dying, and then the brain registers this, and they go back and forth like that in a feedback loop.