Hanging onto the branch hoping – “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides

January 19, 2012 at 4:43 pm 2 comments

“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides, Published in 2011 

I thought this book was astonishingly well written. It is also a really engaging story with characters that you can connect with, even in their flawed state. The ending of this novel is perhaps one of the best I have read in years.

(This is going to be extremely oversimplified) The story revolves around three characters: Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell.  All three went to Brown and, though it is not necessarily a linear book and there are flashbacks to when they were in college, the story picks on the day of their graduation in 1982.

Mitchell has been in love with Madeleine all through college but for one reason or another their relationship never moved past friendship, sometimes a very strained friendship.  After years of pining, Mitchell decides after graduation to travel first to Europe and then to India to work in one of  Mother Theresa’s hospitals.  While traveling both physically and spiritually, Mitchell has to go through the tough but necessary struggle of determining how religion fits into his life and how he fits into religion. Not unlike how he must determine how he fits into Madeleine’s life.

Madeleine has fallen in love with Leonard who suffers from “maniac depression.”  Madeleine has to find a way to either cope with being the girlfriend of someone with a mental illness or leave the person she loves to feel “normal” again.  Madeleine is also dealing with the post-graduation loss of direction and purpose eventually finding it through a seminar on Victorian Literature (perhaps her greatest love).

Leonard wants to make Madeleine happy but he struggles with the side effects of the medication that subdues his mania but changes him into someone else.  Some of the best parts of this book are written through Leonard’s perspective where the reader can’t tell if the choices are indeed reasonable or a part of Leonard’s mental illness.  It is a great tool for Eugenides to show the reader, as best as possible, what it is like to try to cope with this type of illness.

The title of “The Marriage Plot” comes from the Victorian novel’s common plot of finding love and marriage. Leaving the question of what happens after the marriage? What happens if the love of your love is severely depressed and you can’t help pull him back to reality?

Like Madeleine, I was an English major in undergrad.  I loved the reading about Madeleine stuck in the hipster Semantics class all the time wishing she was reading George Eliot.  I remember sitting in a class having to read Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” and thinking “who likes this crap?” – no offense meant Pynchon fans.

But ultimately this is a love story. Not the simple, straight-forward love story that we recognize. But a love story about finding love either in someone else or in ourselves. Finding love in how we fit into our lives even if this life is not what we had dreamed about on our first day of college.  Plans do not always work out and we often find ourselves having to adjust our expectations. And through-out Eugenides reminds us that life and love are like the Russian Fable. We are all hanging from the branch in a well, with a monster above and a dragon below. Death is imminent.  But if we are wise we will hang on the branch and focus on the sweet honey – we will accept the moment we are in and fall in love with it as flawed as it might be.


Entry filed under: January 2012 reads. Tags: , , , .

You can’t win them all – “The Likeness” by Tana French Let them eat cake, no really they need something to do – “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Nella  |  January 20, 2012 at 9:07 am

    I am SO glad to read a review of this; I’ve been waiting for someone to review it before I plunge into it (and buy it). Thanks, it sounds fascinating and you have written such a concise appraisal of it.

    • 2. Emily C  |  January 22, 2012 at 8:00 pm

      I am glad you thought it was concise because it seemed like I was getting a little long on this review. Please let me know what you think about the book.


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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