Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Marriage Plot, is not a book I intended to read. The story of a college grad torn between two lovers seemed too likely to be matrimaniacal. But then a friend passed along her copy, and well, it did win the Pulitzer Prize, so I figured I’d at least start it. (Spoiler alert: I’m going to reveal the ending.)
Madeleine is an English major who is smitten by the great British novels, even though it is deconstructionism that is all the rage at Brown University in the 80s, when the story takes place. The two men vying for her affections are Mitchell, a spiritual type, and Leonard, a brilliant and quirky biologist who turns out to be a “manic-depressive” (as he is called in the novel).
The book is a coming-of-age story about the three recent grads, with a focus on the romantic triangle. The tremendously talented Madeleine attends mostly to the needs of Leonard, putting her own aspirations on hold. She marries very young (early 20s) and wonders whether she should have chosen Mitchell instead. All that is the ho-hum part.
Surprisingly, though, The Marriage Plot also included some wonderful tributes to singles, single life, and to pursuits other than romantic ones. Discussions of Madeleine’s interests in English literature also provided openings for thoughtful critiques of the role of the marriage plot in novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility (Madeleine calls them comedies that end with weddings) and the darker Middlemarch and Portrait of a Lady that continue beyond the wedding, following “their spirited, intelligent heroines” into “their disappointing married lives.”
Here are a few of my favorite highlights for the single-at heart:
1. In The Marriage Plot, the Nobel Prize goes to a 73-year-old single woman who loves her work.
One summer, Madeleine goes with Leonard to Cape Cod where Leonard has a prestigious fellowship in biology. She is the tag-along partner, and is mostly lonely. There is one scientist she has only met casually, but greatly admires. That’s Diane MacGregor, a 73-year-old single woman, who lives and works in solitude. Stylistically, MacGregor is very unlike the other scientists, with their sophisticated techie devices, big research teams and even bigger budgets. One of the showy scientists was expected to win the Nobel Prize, but instead the honor went to MacGregor.
The exchanges at the press conference, where the Nobel Prize winner showed up in her “old raincoat and Wellies,” went like this:
“Dr. MacGregor, where were you when you heard the news?”
“I was asleep. Just like I am right now.”
“Could you tell us what your scientific work is about?”
“I could. But then you’d be asleep.”
“What do you plan to do with the money?”
Musing about it afterwards, Madeleine noted:
“For thirty-five years she’d been inspecting her corn with Mendelian patience, receiving no encouragement or feedback on her work, just showing up every day, involved in her own process of discovery, forgotten by the world and not caring. And now, finally, this, the Nobel, the vindication of her life’s work, and though she seemed pleased enough, you could see that it hadn’t been the Prize she was after at all. MacGregor’s reward had been the work itself, the daily doing of it, the achievement of which made of a million unremarkable days.”
2. In The Marriage Plot, Madeleine has one of her best times when she is away from her partner and pursuing her passions.
While Leonard stays at the Cape, Madeleine takes a weekend to attend a conference on Victorian literature in Boston. There she meets two other enthusiasts of nineteenth century literature, Meg and Anne:
“As little as she had in common with Meg and Anne, Madeleine couldn’t remember having a better time. The entire weekend, they didn’t once ask if she had a boyfriend. They just wanted to talk about literature.”
3. The novel underscores the loneliness a person can feel in romantic relationships.
Madeleine muses about the time she spends waiting – to hear from Leonard, to do things with him:
“The more she thought about it, the more Madeleine understood that extreme solitude did not just describe the way she was feeling about Leonard. It explained how she’d always felt when she was in love. It explained what love was like and, just maybe, what was wrong with it.”
Later, Madeleine observes that the feeling “was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, that most solitary of places.”
4. The Marriage Plot does not end with a marriage.
On the last page of the novel, Mitchell poses this question to Madeleine:
“From the books you read for your thesis, and for your article – the Austen and the James and everything – was there any novel where the heroine gets married to the wrong guy and then realizes it, and then the other suitor shows up, some guy who’s always been in love with her, and then they get together, but finally the second suitor realizes that the last thing the woman needs is to get married again, that she’s got more important things to do with her life? And so finally the guy doesn’t propose at all, even though he still loves her? Is there any book that ends like that?”
Madeleine can’t think of any such book. The last word of the novel is Madeleine’s answer to Mitchell’s question about whether that would be a good ending. Madeleine says yes.
College girl photo available from Shutterstock