Life, Love, and “The Marriage Plot”

A review of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides


It took me a week to get through the first 200 pages of The Marriage Plot. I devoured the last 200 in one day.

Don’t let the title of book fool you. Marriage is only a peripheral topic of this story. Rather, it traces the interwoven lives of the three students as they leave college and tackle the enigma of adulthood.

The book is not a love story, but very much a story about love. It takes a didactic view, presenting a raw yet honest case study of the subject. Some of it I related to—the consuming elation and neediness you feel at the beginning, the hollow I love yous muttered when you don’t know what else to say, the profound comfort and closeness you share when the pretense of love fades.

Yet there is a bitterness to Eugenide’s vision of love I cannot swallow. For him, love is inherently flawed. For me, it is our own flaws as people that make it so. Love—and marriage—need not be some socially constructed plot, but a state of grace and perfection which we continually strive to achieve.

On a whole, the author does somethings very well. His portrayal of mental illness is truthful, visceral, and enlightening. He moves seamlessly between past and present, layering in backstory that is both relevant and symbolic. His dialogue is unaffected and character-defining. His descriptions, especially as the story progresses, deftly reflect oscillating mood of the characters.

Still, I felt Eugenides took too long to find the underlying rhythm of his novel. The first 50-100 pages were mired in soupy, pedantic prose. Despite having a great deal in common with the central protagonist, Madeleine, I struggled to relate and empathize with her. It wasn’t until a second point-of-view character emerged (Mitchell, and later a third, Leonard) that the story really moved inside of me.  

There is much to glean and admire about his novel from a literary standpoint, but you have to trudge through a lot before you come upon these gems.

Somehow, I think even the Eugenides realizes this. Toward the end of the novel, Leonard reminisces about reading difficult books like those by Tolstoy and James. You would suffer through pages of boredom he says “until you got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled you were almost grateful for previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.”

For me, the good parts of this novel were not enough to sustain me through the dull. And the theme, while interesting, did not ultimately resonate.

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