The Marriage Plot
Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux $28.00 (cloth)

As its title makes clear, Jeffrey Eugenides’s first novel, The Virgin Suicides (1993), is about virgins and suicide. This is not, however, all that it is about, and more than any other single thing it is about adolescence. As adults know and adolescents have begun to see, becoming an adult entails learning to live with the limits of what one knows, which is another way of saying that it means learning to live with the little one knows. As we get older, we take the measure of all we don’t know, both the things time and effort could teach us—such as Hittite or carpentry—and a different, more mysterious order of things—other people’s hopes and fears. That is to say, part of becoming an adult is learning to live with the gulf separating the little we know from the lot we do not. But, as The Virgin Suicides artfully relates, it is not easy and it is not pretty.

The Marriage Plot, Eugenides’s new novel, is about becoming an adult, about moving, marrying, and making mistakes. The events of The Virgin Suicides end with its narrators leaving Grosse Pointe, Michigan to go away to college. Although not a continuation of that singular story, The Marriage Plot picks up where it left off—freshman year at college in the early 1980s. The book’s title is less of a pun than the reader might think. There is no plot in the sense of a more or less playful conspiracy. Instead, the title is meant in both a literal and a literary sense. Eugenides’s third novel is about a budding scholar who, while studying marriage plots in nineteenth-century English literature, finds herself embedded in one of her own. Like the heroines of much Victorian fiction, and unlike the heroines of Eugenides’s previous novels, Madeleine is calm and conventional. She is not unknowable like the Lisbon girls of The Virgin Suicides, and she confronts no special biological destiny like the hermaphroditic Cal of Middlesex (2002). Instead, Madeleine is like the heroines of the books she sheepishly prefers to those in vogue among her peers; she is like the young women in Austen and Trollope, George Eliot and Henry James.

The Marriage Plot is about Madeleine marrying, and it is about Madeleine reading about marrying. But as much as marriage, perhaps even more than marriage, the novel is about how life imitates art, how literature shapes lives, where ideas of love come from and how they grow. We read that at Brown, “Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line; it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism.” Madeleine is not drawn to deconstructive paradigms of transgender identity formation (there is a sly nod here to Middlesex) or anything like them. Instead, she is most interested in Victorian fiction, at the heart of which is her marriage plot. But that does not mean the elect hold no appeal for her.

Early on in the novel, there is an in-class argument about a topic with special resonance for readers of Eugenides’s earlier fiction: suicide—or, rather, its literary representation. A bright, black-clad young man with shaved eyebrows named Thurston is asked in semiotics class to comment on Peter Handke’s literary memoir A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Commonsensical Madeleine objects to Thurston’s cold-hearted semiological analysis, reminding the crypto-goth that Handke’s mother really did die, and that real death is of real importance for understanding the book. With scarcely veiled impatience, he concedes:

Yeah, O.K., Handke’s real mother killed herself. She died in a real world and Handke felt real grief or whatever. But that’s not what this book’s about. Books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books.

It is this question, the question of whether Thurston is right, that Eugenides places at the heart of his marriage plot—but with a twist.

In a certain sense Thurston is clearly right. There is life and there is art, and even if we do not know where to draw the lines, we know they exist. Eugenides is of Greek ancestry, is from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, attended Brown University in the 1980s, and wrote a preface to A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. These facts may be relevant for asking and answering certain questions; however, they are not what The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex, and The Marriage Plot are about. But does that leave no alternative but that those books—that all books—are always and only about other books? That they are not about the real world in which real people live and die? Clearly not. This is all to say that Thurston is right, but only up to a certain point. Some books are about other books.

One of the epigraphs to The Marriage Plot is La Rochefoucauld’s “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” Translated into the language of semiotics class, this means that love is a cultural construct. It is obviously true that we are conditioned by our time and place, that we not only are shaped by our experiences, but that we shape them. In one mysterious way or another, we are all encouraged—or conditioned, or primed—to experience certain phenomena in certain ways. What is provocative about the epigraph, and leads to its frequent citation, is that La Rochefoucauld chooses the central human experience as his example for such conditioning. He does not say that people would never believe in special relativity if they had not heard it talked about, but that they would never do the most important and delightful and mysterious thing humans do—they would never fall in love.

Are books always and only about other books? Are they not about the real world in which real people live and die?

In some ultimate and unknowable sense, love might be an affair of pheromones just as it might be the marriage of true minds; love might be life’s grandest illusion just as it might be its realest thing. The point for Eugenides’s plot is that no amount of semiotic analysis can ever offer us an answer to the question. We know that the stories we have read and heard condition our ideas about love, and our ideas about everything. And we also know that we can never know how much those stories condition whom we love, what we love, how we love, or even that we love. (It bears noting in this respect that although Eugenides employs an oft-used translation of La Rochefoucauld’s maxim, it is a mistranslation. What La Rochefoucauld said was, in fact, far less sweeping than what we find in the first lines of Eugenindes’s book. La Rochefoucauld did not say that all people only fall in love for this reason, but that some people [il y a des gens] only fall in love for this reason. Given that what La Rochefoucauld actually said is a good deal less interesting than what Eugenides—along with many others—has him say, the mistranslation’s durable appeal is easy to see.)

But then, if it is true that people—at least some of them—would not fall in love had they not first heard about doing so, it may be equally true that people would not judge love a mere cultural construct had they not first heard about doing so.

Returning to the semiotic discussion of suicide, Thurston expresses an ageless uncertainty about the relation of literature to life, but he does so in a manner employing all the signs of his times. As did their maker, Thurston, Madeleine, and the other principal characters in the novel are attending Brown at the high-water mark of semiological interest, the years of greatest deconstructive activity, of the most passionate post-structural analysis (of passion). Eugenides includes a great deal of realistic detail in painting this scene—right down to reading lists, in which there is a surprising error: Heidegger’s great work was Being and Time, not Being and Nothingness, which was Sartre’s recasting of it. Thurston is thus both expressing the idiosyncratic opinions of a singular character and presenting a potential misreading typical of its time, an attention to signifiers that risks losing sight of the signified. Down the road in New Haven during the very years the novel’s events chronicle, the brilliant post-Heideggerian critic Paul de Man wrote, “Death is a displaced name for a linguistic predicament.” The predicament of Thurston, Madeleine, and their semiological classmates is whether this is so, whether language and literature integrally condition not just some but all our experiences.

Although Madeleine prefers Austen and Trollope to Foucault and Derrida, she has a special love for one of the books in semiotics class. La Rochefoucauld is given a modern successor: Roland Barthes. Aptly enough, The Marriage Plot, although it is not simply about another book, is constructed around an intertexta text with which it is in continuous dialogue. This is Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (which is itself constructed around an intertext, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, which, in turn, is one of the intertexts of The Virgin Suicides). Madeleine loves Barthes, and loves through Barthes. Dante tells of how Paolo and Francesca were brought together by a book. The same is true of Madeleine and her lover Leonard, who are not only brought together, but also torn asunder by one. When Madeleine declares her love, her lover takes it as part of a discourse, as a quotation, and replies with another quotation, from A Lover’s Discourse. This hurts her horribly, presaging and precipitating the crisis that will determine much of their marriage plot. We then read:

A Lover’s Discourse was the perfect cure for lovesickness. It was a repair manual for the heart, its one tool the brain. If you used your head, if you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental, if you recognized that being ‘in love’ was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny. Madeleine knew all that. The problem was, it didn’t work. She could read Barthes’ deconstructions of love all day without feeling her love for Leonard diminish the teeniest little bit. The more of A Lover’s Discourse she read, the more in love she felt. She recognized herself on every page. She identified with Barthes’ shadowy ‘I.’ She didn’t want to be liberated from her emotions but to have their importance confirmed. Here was a book addressed to lovers, a book about being in love that contained the word love in just about every sentence. And, oh, how she loved it!

This is a typical passage in many respects, including the slightly saccharine tone absent from Eugenides’s earlier works. What is so compelling for Madeleine about Barthes’ book is that, for all its analytical acuity and all its synthetic sweep, it claims that knowing is no proof against feeling. We might know that our ideas about love, and our experiences of love, are conditioned by our culture, but that does not stop us from loving and does not ease the pain of love’s loss. Even when Madeleine is given a book that encourages her to see how “culturally constructed” her passions are, the power of those passions is in no way diminished.

Great writers link the almost imperceptible changes of nature with our scale of longing, loving, and losing.

This is but one element of The Marriage Plot—and not the most interesting one. The lives of Madeleine’s suitors are presented alongside hers. The best and most haunting writing in the book details the mental illness of the gifted and fascinating Leonard. The varying rhythms of his moves from mania to depression are rendered with great delicacy—as are the effects of those rhythms upon those close to him. Every bit as central as Leonard to The Marriage Plot is a young man from Grosse Pointe named Mitchell. Thus vying for Madeleine’s affections are an intelligent, compassionate, and kind Greek boy from the Midwest and an unstable rakish genius from the far West. Viewed from a certain thematic altitude, these two suitors fall into, or are drawn from, a recognizable pattern—that of the nineteenth-century marriage plot. Which is to say that the larger lines of Madeleine’s marriage plot are very much like those of the novels she prefers to the radical chic of Brown’s deconstructive reading. But once we move closer to the characters and examine the finer grain of their lives and loves, such schematic affinity fades to a dwindling point.

To say more would risk spoiling the plot. But that need not be the end of the story. I think it best if I say the following simply and clearly: I was disappointed by The Marriage Plot. The root cause of this disappointment is the pleasure—the great and renewed pleasure—I’ve had reading Eugenides’s earlier novels. The Virgin Suicides is one of the finest books—one of the funniest and wryest and sweetest, as well as most heart-rending—of recent years. For so funny a writer, The Marriage Plot is not very funny, and for so daring a one it is not very daring. One problem seems to be one of integration—of integrating the theme of theory with the theme of practice. Eugenides draws a powerful parallel drawn between Madeleine’s life and her study of literature. This is too clearly developed to remain in the novel’s background, and yet not integrated enough to hold its center. Eugenides should not, of course, be faulted for failing to down with or against the remark he sets in his epigraph, and I do not wish for a sort of conte philosophique, wherein he illustrates the rightness (or wrongness) of La Rochefoucauld’s (or Barthes’s) intuition about life, love, and literature. But I do wish that his heroine confronted the way her life is shaped by the literature she loves—and the way that her love is shaped by the literature she loves—that this drama played out not only in the lives of the characters, but in their minds. This book begins to trace this arc, and never finishes. This might well be neither here and there for many—perhaps even most—readers, and so, in closing, a bit of comparison might clarify the disappointment to which I refer.

Because in The Virgin Suicides the vigilance of the girls’ parents and the shyness of the boys collude to keep the boys at a distance, they are dependent for information on those few who come closer, such as the lovers Lux receives on the roof of the Lisbon house:

According to the boys’ descriptions, Lux had lost weight, though we couldn’t tell through the binoculars. All sixteen mentioned her jutting ribs, the insubstantiality of her thighs, and one, who went up to the roof with Lux during a warm winter rain, told us how the basins of her collarbones collected water. A few boys mentioned the acidic taste of her saliva—the taste of digestive fluids with nothing to do—but none of these signs of malnourishment or illness or grief . . . detracted from Lux’s overwhelming impression of being a carnal angel. They spoke of being pinned to the chimney as if by two great beating wings, and of the slight blond fuzz above her upper lip that felt like plumage. Her eyes shone, burned, intent on a mission as only a creature with no doubts as to either Creation’s glory or its meaninglessness could be.

What the boys see reflected in Lux’s burning gaze is their own bafflement. They feel certain that Lux’s conviction is complete; they just don’t know of what she is convinced, whether she experiences a world radiant with unutterable glory or sunk in utter meaninglessness. “Sometimes,” the narrators have occasion to note, “drained by this investigation, we long for some shred of evidence, some Rosetta stone that would explain the girls at last.” But despite their loving search, despite half a life of investigation and reflection, they unearth no such stone, uncover no such evidence. It is this longing and this drama that are in short supply in The Marriage Plot.

What is also lacking is the exuberant wit both of The Virgin Suicides and its more famous successor, Middlesex, such as where Cal envies German its flexibility and remarks: “I’d like to have a word for ‘the sadness inspired by failing restaurants’ as well as for ‘the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.’” More to the point, Cal reflects:

I was thinking how amazing it was that the world contained so many lives. Out in these streets people were embroiled in a thousand different, money problems, love problems, school problems. People were falling in love, getting married, going to drug rehab, learning how to ice-skate, getting bifocals, studying for exams, trying on clothes, getting their hair cut, and getting born. And in some houses people were getting old and sick and were dying, leaving others to grieve. It was happening all the time, unnoticed, and it was the thing that really mattered.

To choose terms consonant with the interests of The Marriage Plot, Madeleine’s beloved George Eliot famously wrote, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” One thing this means is that there is a literally overwhelming amount to see and feel in the world. Another is that great writers link those spheres—the beating of animals’ hearts, the almost imperceptible changes of nature—with our scale of longing, loving, and losing. Such vision is not absent from The Marriage Plot, but it is less keen than in its predecessors. If you felt as I did about Eugenides’s first novel, you risk feeling as do I about his third one. But you are also in store for many fine moments, as, ultimately, the main characters realize that their love is singular and that it makes for a good story, and a still better ending.