The R(ead)sling List: The Marriage Plot

By Emma Soberano ’17

soberano@grinnell.edu

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides hit close to home. The novel begins with the senior collegiate year and graduation of three characters – Madeline, Mitchell and Leonard – and follows the trio through their first post-college year. Like Eugenides’ other novels, The Marriage Plot takes place in a particular time period, which informs the book’s tone; in this case, the tone pulls into the 1980s. The tense Reagan-era backdrop, compounded with the end-of-college premise and heavy Victorian literary tropes all made my choice of novel feel somewhat like kismet. Despite this, by the end I could not decide whether I actually liked the novel.

The Marriage Plot is beautifully written and at moments incredibly self-aware, though at others moments, it falls disappointingly short. Eugenides has a gift for getting inside of his characters’ heads, changing the narratorial voice to match their inner monologue. This is particularly important because the novel divides between the points of view of three characters. Eugenides’ ability makes the third person narration for each of these characters distinct, dancing between narrator’s judgment and intense sympathy, is testament to his skill as a writer. To voice not only a character demographically similar to himself, but two others with vastly different experiences of gender and mental health, makes the novel a fascinating read. Yet, there are aspects of the story which trouble me.

Primary among my difficulties was that I found myself unable to sympathize with Mitchell, who seems to be the semi-autobiographical hero of the tale. Each character embarks on, in one way or another, a listless post-graduation journey. For Madeline and Leonard, their journey is a deeply personal, emotional and interrelational one. For Mitchell, it is literal: he travels around Europe and India thinking alternately about religion and his “love/lust” for a version of Madeline that he has constructed in his imagination. Mitchell is at his best when he is thinking about God and being a slightly strange religious savant. Yet his character as the personification of the male gaze interrupts these moments of philosophical brilliance. Several female characters in the novel repeatedly point out this character flaw in what seem to be Eugenides’ attempts at correcting Mitchell’s sexism. These attempts might have had more success had the characters from which they sprung been presented as anything more than annoying-but-pretty pseudo-feminist girl-women with penchants for hair flipping. Thus, while it is Mitchell who undertakes a literal pilgrimage of soul-searching, the result of which is the novel’s ending, his supposed transformation feels contrived.

Madeline and Leonard, on the other hand, both read as more fully-fleshed out characters. I may be biased towards Victorian-loving English major Madeline (I myself am a fourth year who recently completed a MAP on Victorian Literature), but I am able to forgive her mistakes and her sometimes grating immaturity because her character arc feels realistic. Leonard is, like Mitchell, a sometimes-disgustingly stereotypical male character – obsessed with sex and convinced of his own intellect. Yet in Leonard’s case, Eugenides makes no half-baked attempt at reform, choosing instead to focus on the rise and fall of Leonard’s lithium-regulated moods and giving the reader a beautifully intimate view into his mind. Thus, The Marriage Plot presents a conundrum: a set of sometimes (or, in Mitchell’s case, mostly) dislikeable characters, wrapped in the pretty packaging of Eugenides’ skillful writing.

I chose a Cabernet Sauvignon (Trapiche 2014) to accompany The Marriage Plot because I needed something predictable, about which I could decide. When most people think of red wines, they think of Cabs; they’re ubiquitous. They are also often a safe red choice, and this Trapiche is the prototype of a good Cab: mild, with a comforting heft to it, and notes of cherry and blackberry. It is not one-dimensional though, as some Cabs can be; hints of cedar and tobacco accompany the fruity notes. It was exactly what I needed to counter my anxiety over graduating and over my inability to make up my mind about Eugenides’ novel.

Wine: Trapiche 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, $10 at McNally’s

Non-Alcoholic Alternative: Try the London Fog at Saint’s Rest (black tea, foamed milk, vanilla).