Though regarded as one of America’s finest realist novelists, Jeffrey Eugenides’s work has been deceptively variant. The Virgin Suicides occupied the brains of a cadre of high-school boys, who collectively narrate the aftermath of a suicide pact among five sisters. And though a bildungsroman at heart, Middlesex, with its hermaphrodite protagonist and allusions to Greek mythology (echoing, too, the chorus nature of The Virgin Suicides), was more playful than the novels we usually toss under the realist rubric.
But for those wondering what Eugenides would write if he decided to shed some of his more fanciful tendencies, he’s given you The Marriage Plot, the story of Madeleine Hanna, recent Brown graduate, daughter of the well-off Alton and Phyllida, and consumer of 19th-century novels. Madeleine’s own inner turmoil mirrors the upheaval in literary theory of the early ’80s—when the novel takes place—as post-structuralism decenters the narrative and the place of marriage in the novel. Likewise, Madeleine is involved in a reluctant love triangle, finding conflict between her intellectual understanding that marriage may be passé and her own romantic impulses.
Eugenides expends a fair amount of energy setting up the literally literary back story—the book’s opening page details the volumes that comprise Madeleine’s library, shoehorning the reader into the meta-story about the lowercase marriage plot dying off in American literature, just as Madeleine tries to construct her own, real-life one. But he has a lighter touch throughout the rest of the book, and he’s a master of the small, telling character detail (her father wears a knee brace beneath his dress pants to preserve his country-club tennis game). Whether it’s the man Madeleine’s after—the philosophical, moody Leonard—or the one after her—the kind, philanthropic Mitchell—Eugenides brings a gentleness to each, weaving them all together in a startlingly and oddly refreshingly conventional novel.