Love in the Ivy League
Jeffrey Eugenides explores real depression, not just preppy romance.
For a certain class of readers along the Eastern seaboard, the new Jeffrey Eugenides novel, The Marriage Plot, will offer the same pleasures and discomforts as looking into the mirror. The three main characters—Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard—are white liberal arts majors at Brown in the early 1980s. Derrida figures largely, as does Cape Cod. The book opens on graduation day, in the manner of St. Elmo’s Fire, with our protagonists wrapped in the drama of their own becoming: what to do next with their lives, and how to resolve the bizarre love triangle they’ve created.
Eugenides last book was the acclaimed Middlesex, which appeared nine years ago. I expected him to return and take another whack at the Great American Novel, but The Marriage Plot is not a swing-for-the-fences book. It’s sort of the opposite. The character of Madeleine is an exquisitely cheekboned, squash-playing preppy who nerds out on Victorian literature. (A rare bird.) In the book’s first section, she stumbles into a lit theory class, where the other students roll their own cigarettes, quote Of Grammatology, and work hard to be epicene. Eugenides uses the rise of lit crit on campus as a foil for the type of novel he’s writing in The Marriage Plot: "Almost overnight it became laughable to read writers like Cheever or Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about anally deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France."
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Marriage Plot
Photograph by Karen Yamuachi/Wikipedia.