Entertaining and perceptive

2012-01-25 00:00

JEFFREY Eugenides is hailed in the United States as a “great American writer”. The three novels he has published — The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex and now The Marriage Plot — are all very different, have come with long intervals in between and are written with great fluency. But I’m not sure that is sufficient qualification for greatness.

The title refers to 19th-century fiction, where courtship and marriage were the motivators of plot, but of course, in these days of easy, stigma-free divorce, the importance of marriage has diminished, in ­fictional terms at least. However, Eugenides has taken the traditional two-men-and-a-girl love triangle and set it in eighties university­campus America, producing an entertaining and perceptive book.

The girl is Madelaine, beautiful and middle-class and studying semiotics because it is the thing to do, though her real interest lies with Victorian fiction. Her two “suitors” are Leonard, by far the most interesting of the trio, and Mitchell, who meets Madelaine early on in their student careers and decides she is his ideal woman. Leonard is bipolar, what in the eighties was called a manic-depressive, and is a powerful and tragic personality, while Mitchell is somewhat unworldly and uncertain. He is fascinated by religion and in the year following their graduation, feeling he has lost Madelaine, travels across Europe and India and even works, albeit briefly and a little half-heartedly, for Mother Teresa in Calcutta. But while he is away, Leonard and Madelaine’s relationship is running into trouble.

It all makes for a very good read, although for me the book is let down somewhat by Madelaine. Unlike many heroines of 19th-century marriage plot novels, she is reactive rather than proactive, and that makes her not quite convincing in the post-feminist setting Eugenides has created, though it is all down to her background — the poor old ­middle-classes getting another knock. There were times when I found myself thinking that both Leonard and Mitchell would be better off without her.

Eugenides has a sharp eye for the foibles of the world and wears his learning lightly: he even manages to make the dusty dryness of semiotics seem compelling. The Marriage Plot is a very good novel, but to over-hype the author’s “greatness” does it no favours.

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