Rewind to Love in the ’80s: Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot
As Gerald says to Paul Denton in Bret Easton Ellis’ classic '80s novel The Rules of Attraction: "No one ever likes the right person." Too often, 'tis true. Whether springing from the pages of any number of Jane Austen novels like Pride and Prejudice or Emma, Adele’s "Someone Like You" lyrics, or current reality TV offerings like "Girls Who Love Boys Who Love Boys," stars seem to fall out of alignment more often than they line up when it comes to love. In his latest novel, The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides’ constellation of bright young things features several newly hatched adults as they enter and navigate the universe of the "real world." Though some might believe that the post-collegiate-love-triangle course has already been charted, Eugenides finds fresh emotional frontiers to tackle in his journeys into the heart's dark matter.
We begin early in the self-obsessed '80s, thrown headfirst into the lives of three college seniors at Brown University counting down to commencement and staring into the great beyond. The college experience is aptly drawn, down to the smallest details of dorm life intimacies, psychosexual dynamics in and out of the seminar room, and the requisite excitement + dread = ambivalence + fear about graduation and rocketing off into real life.
Friends, lovers, and classmates Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell are gravitationally bound to one another through their desires for understanding, validation, sex, and love. Longing for meaning, the dutiful, beautiful Madeleine provides an irresistible nexus for brilliant-but-manic Leonard and still-haven’t-found-what-I’m-looking-for Mitchell to orbit as they all morph into their grown-up selves and ultimately find their places in the universe. By exploring our trio’s varied interests — semiotics, nineteenth-century literature, the competitive world of research science, and spirituality vs. God, among others -- Eugenides makes their journeys feel undeniably meaningful and real, despite some of their seemingly esoteric nature. Going down the wormhole sometimes can lead to the greatest discovery.
Few writers inhabit characters the way that Eugenides does — as a reader you are so embedded in their thoughts you can only marvel at how he’s mapped their internal topography so completely, with few if any stones unturned. You can’t help but empathize with all of their ups and downs and round and rounds as they helplessly crash into each other on their inevitable ways forward. While The Marriage Plot may, at its core, turn on a simple love-triangle axis, its significantly hyper-dimensional look at life and love and what makes the world go round is deeply satisfying and worth the trip.