It is 1982 at Brown University, and marriage and plot are both on the rocks. Undergraduates are abandoning weddings for hookups. On the literary front, they are tossing aside suburban realists like Updike and Cheever for writers like the Marquis de Sade and Derrida - not traditional novelists at all, but rococo poets of excess and the French semioticians who love them.
You can guess where this leaves the marriage plot. That stalwart 19th-century device, in which the protagonists overcome impediments of birth or character to achieve conjugal bliss, no longer figures in serious fiction, at least according to voguish academics. “Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays? You couldn’t,’’ Jeffrey Eugenides writes in his new novel, “The Marriage Plot.’’ “You had to read non-Western novels involving traditional societies . . . You had to go, literarily speaking, back in time.’’
With his third book, Eugenides does just that, returning to his own college days at Brown. “The Marriage Plot’’ concerns a love triangle of sorts among three graduating members of the class of 1982. It’s a harder book to pin down than Eugenides’s first two novels, set in the Michigan of his youth: “The Virgin Suicides,’’ with its virtuosic writing and lush, creepy plot, and “Middlesex,’’ which soldered a Greek immigrant saga and a 1970s intersex coming-of-age story into an unlikely American epic. “The Marriage Plot’’ is part cultural anthropology, part relationship drama, and part dare. They say the marriage plot is dead, do they? Well, this novel aims to prove otherwise.
Of Eugenides’s three characters, one is obsessed with the marriage plot: Madeleine Hanna, the preppy English-major daughter of a college president, who hopes her thesis on the subject will launch a career in academia. Then there’s Madeleine’s boyfriend, Leonard Bankhead, a gifted biologist who is more volatile than he first appears. Finally, there’s Mitchell Grammaticus, a pensive half-Greek kid from Michigan (sound familiar?), who cares chiefly about the varieties of religious experience and, unrequitedly, Madeleine. The book begins on graduation day: Madeleine’s and Leonard’s plans are undecided, while Mitchell is headed off to backpack through Europe and India.
But all this lies ahead - far ahead. Before the story truly begins, we get a hundred pages, dense with detail, which advance the novel’s timeline only a few hours: from 7:30 to 10:00 a.m. on graduation morning. In flashback, we learn about Madeleine’s past boyfriends, sit through a semiotics class about deconstruction, and see Mitchell enjoy one brief but shining Thanksgiving holiday with the Hannas. We get block-by-block directions to the grungy coffee shop where Madeleine and her parents get bagels on graduation day. We witness Madeleine and Leonard’s first date (a Fellini film) and their breakup (Madeleine throws Roland Barthes’s “A Lover’s Discourse’’ at Leonard’s head).
All this detail certainly feels authentic - disclosure: I, too, have eaten bagels in that grungy café - but what narrative purpose does it serve? Based on the book’s apparent effort to resurrect the marriage plot and on Eugenides’s straightforward prose - the rhapsodic tone that defined his first book and accented his second has almost entirely vanished - one expects a good old-fashioned story. But these pages are not that. Half self-mocking, half self-congratulatory, relentlessly mundane, they’re the fictional equivalent of the blog “Stuff White People Like.’’
Just in time, something happens to make you stop checking your watch: Madeleine skips graduation. Why? Because she discovers that Leonard is bipolar and has been hospitalized with severe clinical depression. Suddenly, the heart and the stakes of the novel emerge: In the face of debilitating mental illness, can love survive?
With this revelation, time speeds forward: The scope of the novel turns out to be a year, not a Joycean day. And the purported love triangle takes shape as simply a duet with distant observer. As Mitchell wanders through Europe and India, he mulls over faith and Madeleine, and spars with hippies, feminists, and evangelicals. But there is little drama to his desultory quest, especially since we know Madeleine is not interested.
So what of Leonard and Madeleine? In the hospital, Madeleine is reunited with her love, now sluggish and shaky from lithium. Later, she follows Leonard to a prestigious biology fellowship in Provincetown, where she looks after him and works on her grad school applications. Both are frustrated and, finally, Leonard takes his treatment into his own hands. What follows is the miraculous and genuinely moving return of the real Leonard in all his youth and brilliance, followed by manic escalation to an inevitable crash - on his honeymoon, no less. For, somewhere in there, Madeleine agrees to marry him.
Here, then, is the marriage plot we’ve been promised: a contemporary one, with mental illness replacing the old class barriers. The social and economic stakes have shrunk since the 19th century, of course - Madeleine, with her budding career, has a future as more than just some man’s wife, and for all parties, divorce is now always an option. But beyond the moment’s particulars are deeper questions about how desire meets resistance, and here Eugenides gathers his strength as a writer and gives us a tale with all the perverse, vertiginous pull of his earlier books. He writes about both Leonard and Madeleine with great sympathy: Leonard, forging doggedly ahead with his lithium treatment, libido gone, hand shaking uncontrollably, his “main goal in the lab . . . to conceal his disease.’’ Then there’s Madeleine, her dreams on hold, “nurse-like and desexualized.’’ When Leonard begins tapering off his medication, it’s clear he has lit a fast-burning fuse; there is a horrifying narrative thrill in waiting for the explosion.
In allowing things to actually happen to his characters, Eugenides makes his best case for the marriage plot, and for plot in general. Novels can do many things, and describing how two people fall in love, overcome adversity, and commit - and then perhaps fall apart - is just one of them. But if you’re going to abandon formal or linguistic innovation and set out to defend the traditional novel, you better be ready to relate some events that, as with Leonard and Madeleine’s story, leave your readers begging for more. Can the marriage plot survive in modern fiction? “The Marriage Plot’’ suggests not only that it can, but that it’s as good a way as ever to tell a story that matters.