High expectations loom over Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest — an occupational hazard for a man who produces roughly one novel per decade, and whose two previous outings have made him justly revered by the New Yorker-subscribing, NPR-tote-bag-schlepping smart set. Accordingly, some fans of his swooning suburban-teen fever dream The Virgin Suicides and Pulitzer Prize-winning hermaphrodite epic Middlesex may be disappointed that The Marriage Plot is in many ways a smaller kind of book, even though it clocks in at over 400 pages and is nearly bursting with Big Ideas.
Plot’s plot, as it were, centers on the lopsided love triangle of three bright young things at Brown University, class of ‘82: WASPy beauty Madeleine Hanna; charismatic manic-depressive Leonard Bankhead; and Mitchell Grammaticus, who is, Madeleine tells herself, exactly ”the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy she should fall in love with and marry.” But it’s the brilliant, volatile Leonard whom she falls for when the pair meet in a Semiotics 211 seminar. (Madeleine, a staunch Jane Austen fan on a campus littered with strenuously trendy deconstructionists in black turtlenecks, is there mainly to catch up with her peers, and her blossoming interest becomes the first of several vehicles for Plot’s frequent digressions into academic theory.)
If chronicling the Derrida debates and romantic travails of perpetually self-regarding undergrads, even ones as sharply drawn as the trio here, sounds beneath Eugenides’ considerable gifts, well, it can feel that way at times. Plot’s story line wobbles and ultimately loses its way. Still, there are serious pleasures here for people who love to read: diamond-sharp observations and dazzling sentences that nearly justify the nine-year wait. B