A Novel for Writers, and Everyone Else, Too
October 17, 2011, by Aja Gabel
I once read an article by an editor of a literary magazine that predicted the death of fiction would be writers who navel-gaze, writers who write stories about writing, or writers, or academia, or domestic affairs, or love. I’ve always had a problem with that argument—the idea that inward-looking content can’t be important—and luckily it seems like Jeffrey Eugenides has ignored it altogether. His new novel, The Marriage Plot, is about writing, writers, academia, domestic affairs, and love, among other things. Mostly it’s about how to grow up, how to reconcile your way of seeing the world after the thrilling scaffolding of college vanishes. And, by being about all those things, it is anything but navel-gazing.
We met the heroine of the novel, Madeleine, hungover and full of regret on the morning of her graduation from Brown in 1982. But we meet her first via her bookshelf. “To start with, look at all the books,” Eugenides writes in the first line, before cataloging the novels she’s used to write her senior thesis on the marriage plot in the works of Austen, Eliot, and James. The traditional marriage plot, usually a three-way courtship dance between one maiden and two suitors, plays out in interesting ways with Madeleine, her hunky and manic depressive boyfriend Leonard, and her geeky best male friend, Mitchell.
Madeleine is perfectly preppy, from a well-to-do WASPy family in New Jersey, a fangirl of Victorian literature, and completely undone when she takes a class on semiotics and deconstruction. Though it critiques her beloved marriage plot, she becomes obsessed with Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. When boyfriend Leonard swings between manic extremes, Madeleine turns to Barthes’s deconstruction of love: “And it was in this period that Madeleine fully understood how the lover’s discourse was of an extreme solitude…It was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, the most solitary of places.”
In The Marriage Plot, books both illuminate and crumble the characters’ worldviews. Books allow them freedom, books give language to their limitations, and books keep them company. In my favorite passage from the book, Madeleine has first read A Lover’s Discourse and is immediately struck:
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. In bed on a Friday night, wearing sweatpants, her hair tied back, her glasses smudged, and eating peanut butter from a jar, Madeleine was in a state of extreme solitude.
This is my favorite passage because though it’s 1982, and it’s Brown, and it’s a rich girl, and it’s an erudite book, it’s also what happens to a lot of us. It’s what we wish to happen every time we crack open a new book: complete transportation, revelation, communion.
The Marriage Plot isn’t just for English majors or MFA students or academics. It’s for people who have ever felt the slight echo of something they’ve read when they’ve fallen in love, or fallen out of love, or pined for love. This book doesn’t want you to ask yourself what you know about semiotics and the marriage plot in Austen novels. This book wants you to ask yourself how much of what you know about love—how much of the way you love—is affected by what you’ve read. I’ll leave it to Eugenidies’ epigraph from French writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld to explain why this book is important: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.”