A Conversation About Jeffrey Eugenides' 'The Marriage Plot'

As I set out to review Jeffrey Eugenides' new novel, The Marriage Plot (Farrar Strauss Giroux), I found out sometimes-Metro Pulse book reviewer and fellow Ivy League grad Abigail Greenbaum was about to start reading the book too. I knew I had to get her thoughts for my review. The book is Eugenides' first since 2002's Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex. It has received rave reviews, and Scott Rudin just bought the movie rights.

The novel tells the story of Madeline Hanna, her boyfriend Leonard Bankhead (loosely based on David Foster Wallace), and her friend and would-be lover, Mitchell Grammaticus (loosely based on Eugenides) as they figure out life in 1982 after graduating from Brown University. Madeline is obsessed with "the marriage plot" in Victorian novels, Leonard has a breakdown, and Mitchell travels the world and discovers religion. Here's our conversation.

Cari Wade Gervin: Hey! Okay, so tell me what you thought about The Marriage Plot.

Abigail Greenbaum: I'm still trying to figure out what I think about it. For the first 80 pages or so, I was feeling pleasantly nostalgic, about being 20, and knowing so little about what my life would look like, and all the scary but thrilling possibility.

CG: Yes! I really liked the beginning. It reminded me of my time at Yale, taking lit theory and reading 18th-century novels.

AG: But then I started to feel frustrated with the characters, for the same reason that I often felt frustrated at Brown. I mean, I wanted to fall in love, not theorize it!

CG: That's a brilliant take. I found that the book got really tedious.

AG: Especially Mitchell's spiritual forays, for me. I got the sense Eugenides was going for Levin from Anna Karenina, but I wasn't on board.

CG: OMG, yes. Those were the worst. I felt like he meant to write an inverted fairy tale—at one time he says Madeline feels "as if she were a princess sitting beside a gentle giant"—but it got old, the misery and tedium. Middlemarch, as he mentions once, is after the marriage plot ends, but it's such a pleasure to read, even through Dorothea's misery. But this was just boring.

AG: I also found myself wondering, why is it that I like Portrait of a Lady so much, but not this?

CG: Because Henry James is less boring. (I do not love James. This felt a little Jamesian.) It also felt Updikian. Updikean? Updikeian?

AG: I don't like all James, but I'm always fascinated by Isabel Archer and the workings of her mind—James's strength, really. I was interested in Madeleine, but ultimately her decisions in the book didn't move me. (A 22-year-old doesn't see a relationship clearly because of sex? No way!)

CG: I think it was the sex that reminded me of Updike. Also Roth. Terrible, terrible unsexy sex scenes. I think I fell out of love with the book on page 90-something when there was this line: "So she had to go on doing what she was doing, lowering her face over Thurston as he inflated like a stent to widen the artery of her throat." I mean, who thinks of oral sex in that way?

AG: I know. The sex in the novel felt so clinical.

CG: Totally.

AG: I mean, I think he's right that a reimagination of the marriage plot has to deal with sex, and as a lover of many 19th-century novels, I was rooting for this book, but passages like the one you quoted made it hard to believe in the book's relationships.

CG: There was so little joy in the book.

AG: Exactly. Of course, that scene with Thurston is an anonymous encounter, but there wasn't any joy in sex with Leonard, either!

CG: No. There's joy in Austen and George Eliot and even Mrs. Gaskell (another slow read). And the depression read like a scene from DSM-IV. I mean, I know it was about David Foster Wallace, but I wished it hadn't been sooo about David Foster Wallace. Or that Eugenides had written a memoir, like Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty, in which you could see the flaws in the beloved friend who kills him/herself.

AG: Truth and Beauty is a much better book about youth, love and illness.

CG: It really is. I love that book. I decided this morning that I think The Marriage Plot is not about deconstructing 19th-century novels so much as it is Eugenides' anxiety about the 20th-century ones—like he is deconstructing Updike with Madeline's character and Roth and Bellow with Mitchell's character. And maybe Leonard is the deconstruction of Mailer? And I hate all those writers, which is why I didn't like the book.

AG: That's really interesting. I agree with you. As I was reading this, I felt like I was missing the spirit and sharpness of the novels (most notably the Jane Austen novels) that I thought this book wanted to take up.

CG: Eugenides writes at one point, "There were some books that reached through the noise of life to grab you by the collar and speak only of the truest things." If only this could have been one of those books.