There are two main elements to writing a great novel. The first is to come up with a compelling, original story featuring memorable, realistic characters going through humongous life events, responding to challenges, and reaching some sort of climactic, cathartic conclusion. The second element is the nuts-and-bolts of the writing; clear and concise sentences, arresting images, interesting and unusual word choices, fluidity and dexterity.
There are lots of novelists who excel at one or the other of these elements, but not both. A novelist with great stories and clunky, unappealing prose can still find success with readers who appreciate a rollicking good story more than elegant language. While someone with an immense command of the language can find favor with readers looking for new ways to use words and metaphors they would not have thought of themselves. Both groups of writers (and their readers) tend to look on the other group with condescension or disdain, but I’ve always felt that to be truly great, a novel must have a great story as well as impeccable prose.
The Marriage Plot is the second novel I have read by Jeffrey Eugenides, after his Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex. In both novels, I have been struck by the amazing ability Eugenides has with words. He is remarkably self-confident and assured in his usage and his construction, and justifiably so. The man writes a good sentence. But in Middlesex I thought his plotting, while buoyed by an interesting and unusual premise and strong knowledge and research of the setting and place, left a lot to be desired. The story eventually caved in under the pressure of all the unnecessary weirdness and outré sexuality Eugenides laid on top of his fractured novel of growing-up.
Now, Eugenides has followed up that effort with a story that is surprisingly toothless and inconsequential. The Marriage Plot is a misconceived overlaying of the comedy of manners style of the Regency and Victorian eras onto the modern age. Featuring three characters who are realistically drawn yet at times alarmingly stupid or unsympathetic, The Marriage Plot stumbles to an uninteresting conclusion featuring no real tension or resolution. But hey, some of the sentences are nice.
Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus are three members of the Brown University Class of 1982. Their intertwining romantic lives on campus lead each to struggle in their immediately post-graduate lives. Madeleine is a rich-girl a bit spoiled by her exposure to the finer things and a bit unreflective when it comes to the privileges that allow her to fritter away her time reading musty old novels while her classmates fret about the recession. Mitchell is a religious studies major captivated by life’s greatest questions, but equally entranced by Madeleine’s tantalizing figure. However, Madeleine is with the brilliant but troubled Leonard Bankhead, a dual major in Biology and Philosophy who turns out to be too smart for his own good when he is diagnosed with manic-depression on Graduation Day.
The novel is at its best in flashbacks to the characters’ time at Brown, delving into the background of the main trio’s relationships. Unfortunately for the reader, more of the novel follows their quixotic post-grad wanderings. Anyone who ever had a friend who claimed to be changed by studying abroad will recognize the feeling of boredom that overcomes them while reading long passages of this novel.
Mitchell joins a friend on a globe-trotting adventure, eventually coming to a crisis moment in India when he tries to put his religious beliefs into practice volunteering with Mother Teresa to help the poor and sick. Leonard tries to keep his illness in control and keep it a secret from the esteemed scientists he is working and competing with. Madeleine devotes her life to Leonard, while trying to squeeze in grad-school applications when she can.
Surprisingly, the novel collapses on its low-stakes plot. It’s perhaps too prejudicial to say that the lives of spoiled rich-kids can’t make for great literature, but it’s definitely true that it doesn’t work for The Marriage Plot. Mitchell’s and Madeleine’s self-created problems are nothing in comparison to Leonard’s very real trauma, and yet Eugenides explores Mitchell and Madeleine in far greater detail, entirely out of proportion with the interest they possess to the reader.
The Marriage Plot is a compulsively readable, comparatively short novel, but it could stand to put on some weight. The narrative shortcuts and shying away from real consequences makes it ultimately a frustrating experience for the reader hoping for greatness.