THE NOVEL'S TITLE refers to a common plot in the favorite 19th century novels of the novel's heroine, Madeleine Hanna: the courtship (with usually at least two leading contenders), the choice, the consequences of the choice. The heroine usually has to balance the claims of a Mr. Seems-Right-Maybe with the real Mr. Right: Wickham and Darcy, St. John and Rochester, Edgar and Heathcliff, Casaubon and Will Ladislaw, Grandcourt and Daniel Deronda, Lord Warburton and Gilbert Osmond. Sometimes, a bad call is made, and we see how Isabel Archer, or Dorothea Brooke, or Gwendolen Harleth soldiers up in the wake of disaster.
It's the contention of one of Madeleine's professors at Brown that the Marriage Plot won't work in the context of the later 20th century, pre-marital sex and access to divorce having dramatically diminished the urgency with which the decision to marry is made. Thus, Eugenides throws down the gauntlet at his own feet. Can one write a contemporary marriage-plot novel?
OK, we'll need a young, attractive, intelligent, but fallible heroine--check, Madeleine Hanna. We need two contenders--check, Leonard Bankhead (brilliant, good-hearted, bi-polar) and Mitchell Grammaticus (near-brilliant, clear-headed, a bit obsessive). If we choose the George Eliot/Henry James model, the heroine will make a choice (check) that reveals itself as a mistake (check) and leads to a radical self-inventory and a chastened but still worthwhile future (check).
On the narrative level, though, The Marriage Plot does not at all feel like a 19th century novel. The long first section (about a third of the book) uses extensive and skillfully-deployed flashback, folding Madeleine's and Mitchell's whole college careers into an account of their graduation day ceremonies. The whole novel relies on style indirect libre and so is saturated in point of view in ways no 19th century novels save Flaubert's are. In the first section especially, Eugenides lays on lots of great Updikean period detail, what music college students of 1978-82 were listening to, how they talked, what movies they watched, what TV they grew up with, what books they read (one character is reading New French Feminisms, a madeleine that zapped me back immediately to 1982). As an updating of a classic novelistic archetype, I'd say it's a success. It's smart, funny, moving.
What's really interesting, though....
...is that Eugenides borrows several traits for Leonard Bankhead (as many reviewers noticed) from David Foster Wallace: big bear of a guy, genius, long hair, bandanna, mental health problems, medication dosage issues. Moreover, Mitchell Grammaticus has a few traits of Eugenides himself: their names are a metrical match, they both come from Detroit, both from Greek-American families.
So The Marriage Plot has a certain weird congruence with that awful (I thought) essay by Jonathan Franzen putatively about the Galapagos Islands but actually about Franzen's dis-ease with Wallace. Like Franzen, Eugenides has great sales, prestigious awards, offers from Hollywood, legions of loyal readers, but nothing like the adoration Wallace inspires. Eugenides (and Franzen) may be wondering...why?
So, in The Marriage Plot, the Passionate Reader (Madeleine) falls in love, naturally, with Wallace. The Passionate Reader marries Wallace, the way passionate readers marry Joyce, or Pynchon, or Austen. But Wallace flames out; Wallace disappears. Will the abandoned Passionate Reader then, at last, fall in love with Eugenides (or Franzen), who has courted and dreamed of her for so long?
To his credit, Eugenides knows she will not.