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on November 22, 2011
Instead of the three generations featured in Eugenides' Pulitzer winning "Middlesex," "The Marriage Plot" presents three individuals: Madeleine Hanna, an attractive, unconfident WASP; Leonard Bankhead, her on-and-off brilliant and brooding boyfriend; and Mitchell Grammaticus, a Michigan Greek who yearns in alternation for Madeleine and for God. The novel opens on the day the three graduate from Brown, returns to back story, then follows their first year in the "real world". Seeking sanctity, Mitchell heads to Europe and India; the other two keep house on Cape Cod, where Leonard studies yeast in a genetics lab and Madeleine applies to graduate school.
The novel contains a marriage but concerns itself neither with matrimony nor love; at heart, it is a coming-of-age drama that possesses the joys and pains of lived experience. With sympathy, modulation and deftness, Eugenides gives immediacy to Mitchell's struggle with spirituality, to Leonard's battle against mental illness and to Madeleine and Leonard's tenuous relationship. But, despite a wry, engaging and beautifully constructed story, "The Marriage Plot" sells its characters short. Mitchell's religious exploration grows tedious and ultimately gets dismissed as a sublimation of his desire for Madeline. And, though the novel's point of view alternates, Leonard receives only a single section before it virtually shuts out his voice.
Madeline, the supposed protagonist who initially seems to be on an interesting journey to maturity, eventually recedes behind Leonard's needs. No journey comes to fruition; she never discovers her vocation, which leaves the reader unable to imagine her as an adult. Perhaps that's the point of this deconstructionist novel but, if so, such obscurity comes at the cost of a truly enjoyable read.