So I’m 28. It’s true. No more hedging around with 20 something, or mid-twenties. I’m a happy, comfortable 28. And unmarried. By any measure I’m just fine with my unmarried status. Jeffrey Eugendies’ novel, *The Marriage Plot,* makes me even happier to be unmarried (would I feel differently were I single? maybe): the novel depicts the disintegration of a ‘phase one’ marriage (phase one referring to those who marry immediately after college) and implicitly suggests that this is not the time, and we are not the generation, who ought to pretend to something like a lifetime commitment.
The title of the book comes from the thesis title of the quirky protagonist, Madeline. Madeline writes this undergraduate thesis on 19th century novels, and argues for particular kinds of marriages that emerge in literature. The coy nod to the reader is, of course, that this is a novel about marriage, too. The circumstances of marriage here are not those of the 19th century courting rituals, and yet the “plot” here contains the same elements of poor timing, misplaced communications/letters, a love triangle (or two), unexpected illness (not scarlet fever here, but manic-depression) and interfering parents.
In revealing the traps of marriage – the required compromise of ‘self’ for the protection of the ‘we’; the abandonment of the lusty body in favour of the sick, wasting body; the despair/resentment that emerges from disparity in income – the novel implicitly argues that marriage is not a “plot” in the sense of a sequence of events, but rather a “plot” in the scheming machinations of society too attached to antiquated notions of how relationships ought to operate. Instead, it suggests that young people need to take time to ‘find themselves,’ – as the lovelorn Mitchell does in his spiritual and literal trip to India – before they can hope to legitimately connect with another person.
While I found the actual plot – the sequence of events, that is – compelling – shifts character perspective and overlapping and extending temporal sequencing – I wasn’t as taken with the characters as I think I needed to be in order to care one way or another whether a) Leonard recovers from his depression or whether he kills himself (I was much more concerned with whether he would shave) b) Madeline and Mitchell end up together c) Madeline works out what might make her happy. Instead I sort of hoped that things would climax in some way that would be a triumph of activity – perhaps the long hinted at suicide attempt? – because the characters are not compelling enough on their own to captivate or provoke this readers empathy.
This is not to say this is a “bad” book, or not one worth reading. Quite the contrary, I think it’s a terrific book for its perspective on marriage, on the compromises required of self and partners to make relationships “work,” on the lengths we might be willing to go to disguise what we want from what we feel is expected of us. I just think it could have been a *better* book had the characters been more fully realized, or their complexities more believable. Yeah, that’s it. So sure, read it! but don’t mind if you don’t care whether Leonard offs himself or not. Kind of like the thematic questions are so interesting they get in the way of the characters themselves…