While I accept the premise of "The Marriage Plot" in literature, the claustrophobic world of Rhode Island's Brown University campus, the intimacies of the three protagonists and the endless particulars of the author's descriptions, I struggle throughout the novel to maintain interest in the characters as they act out the author's theme in real life, a formula writ long ago. The story begins with Madeleine Hanna's graduation ceremony, a girl fascinated with Victorian writers Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James, the ease and simplicity of regimented society, the men in her life viewed through that romantic prism, the molding of those we love into acceptable roles, a society married its vision of success. Life never delivers the expected, however- sometimes not even the acceptable- but Madeleine finds refuge in Victorian conventions, Eugenides waxing nostalgic for the putative good old days of the eighties, expounding freely on the college experience, laced liberally with the students' penchant for breaching intellectual boundaries, Greek life, a social milieu thriving in a mild political environment.
Daughter of privilege, Madeleine possesses natural beauty in abundance, a senior concentrating on her thesis, lately enamored of theory, philosophy and semiotics. She is helpless to resist the enigmatic Leonard Bankhead, who lives frugally and perhaps harbors deeper secrets. The third element of Eugenides' emotional ménage a trios is Mitchell Grammaticus, a young man deeply inspired by religious studies planning to travel to India, hopelessly in love with Madeleine, who sees only Leonard. Romance blooms with the inevitable heartbreak and dark passages, Madeleine hurling herself into a tormented dance with Leonard, who proves to be vastly more complicated than first appears, a Heathcliff with flaws as seductive as his brilliant mind. In chapters that shift perspective between Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell, Madeleine embraces Leonard's dark night of the soul, her lover sliding into a morass of gloom, chronic self-examination and psychiatric aids, his relationship with Madeleine seesawing from dominant to dependent and back again. Predictably, Mitchell is the drama's objective witness, even from India and his all-consuming quest for spirituality, or at least his idea of it.
Whatever joy is found in the beginning of this fiction becomes mired in the author's prose, obscure, mind-numbing details that suck the energy from the novel, an exhausting tale that evolves into irrelevancy by the end. Eugenides gets lost along the way, in love with his characters' intellectual pursuits and consummate angst, facilitating their ingrained habit of resolving their problems through agonies of indecision. Rather than inspire, the novel seems a great conceit, a scrapbook of the past collapsing under the burden of the protagonists' experiences, Leonard and Mitchell orbiting Madeleine's moon, doomed to their own spheres of gravity. The author writes with some depth on Leonard's emotional struggles, but none of these characters capture my imagination. Where, oh where is Jane Austen when you need her? Luan Gaines/2011.