Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot arrived promptly on the publication date last Tuesday. Of course I couldn’t start it immediately, so the pre-ordering was very silly. I have several long, half-read novels to finish before the end of the year. I could not begin The Marriage Plot until I finished Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (a 900-page fantasy classic). I thought about finishing Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s Robert Elsmere, but I have temporarily abandoned it in favor of Eugenides’s first novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex in 2002.
Once I started The Marriage Plot, I read nonstop. My husband lured me away for a bike ride only by a promise of Gummi Bears and an hour-long reading break in a picnic shelter in Linden.
I’m not done with the book yet, but I like it.
Eugenides’s new novel is about people who filter the world through books. Of course books are not “about” anything as much as they are about the reader, as beautiful Madeleine Hanna, a senior at Brown, learns in her semiotics class. Madeleine loves to disappear into a story, though. She especially likes Victorian novels.
“In Week 4, Zipperstein assigned Umberto Eco’s The Role of the Reader. It hadn’t done much for Madeleine. She wasn’t all that interested, as a reader, in the reader. She was still partial to that increasingly eclipsed entity: the writer. Madeleine had a feeling that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature. They wanted to demote the author. They wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted that to be the main thing. Because they were readers.”*
When the novel opens on graduation day, Madeleine is not in very good shape, though she has finished her honors thesis on the marriage plot in novels. She is obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, Leonard Bankhead, a handsome, brilliant biologist she met in semiotics class, who, when she told him she loved him, showed her a passage in Ronald Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse about the meaninglessness of this sentence.
Semiotics has killed the novel and the marriage plot (maybe).
Part of the novel is told from Madeleine’s point of view, and part from that of her friend, Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious studies major who is in love with her. Mitchell is an endearing nerd, a polite Greek-American from Grosse Point, who believes that he will marry Madeleine, even after she gets back together with Leonard. He goes home to Detroit and works as a bus boy to earn money for a trip to India, while Madeleine moves to Cape Cod with Leonard, who has a fellowship at a laboratory. Mitchell, who is urged to go to graduate school and prepare for an academic career, filters everything through William James, Thomas Merton, Saint Theresa, and Pynchon.
Everyone in this book is a reader.
I haven’t read the reviews yet, but if they’re good, I agree.
So back to reading.
*Thank God they didn’t make us study semiotics in classics.