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July 30, 2012 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Review – The Marriage Plot

Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex, The Virgin Suicides) never ceases to weave intricate, convincing stories. The Marriage Plot traces the lives of Brown University students Madeline, Mitchell and Leonard in a turmoil of overseas adventures, a struggle with manic depression, and graduation in the year of ’82.

“Hopelessly romantic” Madeline is lost in the 19th century works of Jane Austen and Henry James, while volatile Leonard observes the mating rituals of yeast cells in his lab, and spiritually curious Mitchell begins his trip to

India. These various obsessions are echoed in their personal ventures, resulting in a complex and painful portrayal of modern relationships rife with misunderstanding. Madeline acutely feels that the plot devices of centuries past have lost their weight: today’s Elizabeth and Darcy signed a prenuptial agreement and have a one in three chance of getting divorced. Where can the fairy-tale underpinnings of a story lie, if not in ‘happily ever after’?

Eugenides carefully illustrates the idea of the decaying story, but does not despair over the future of the novel. As French philosophy reaches America in the early ‘80s all the cool kids are reading ‘terroristically obscure’ Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of language along with Roland Barthes’ assertion of the death of the author. But after all, even Barthes eventually overcame his misgivings and began to write fiction. The Marriage Plot is a spirited rejection of those who claim that the modern novel has lost its ability to take us anywhere new.

Although Eugenides intelligently captures the inevitable confusions and disappointments of modern love, he fails to retain the timelessly captivating qualities of stories like Pride and Prejudice or Portrait of a Lady. Eugenides’ exploration of marriage, love and the tradition of the novel is sophisticated and insightful, yet we are left a little disenchanted.

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