In writing, and in life, it is incredibly difficult to deviate from the paths of least resistance. The established patterns seem so easy and inviting, and it takes amazing willpower and courage to do things a different way. As a writer, Jeffrey Eugenides gracefully avoids clichés and predictability. Both of his previous books, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, are memorable and unnerving. In his latest novel, The Marriage Plot, Eugenides is not alone in his avoidance of formulaic archetypes. The characters themselves are engaged in a meta-struggle to reject obvious and seemingly inexorable fates.
The Marriage Plot follows the intertwined lives of three central characters: Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus, and Leonard Bankhead. The novel opens in 1982, on the chaotic day that is supposed to send the three of them, and the rest of the graduating class, careening into adulthood. The collective mood is characterized by anticipation: professors have pulled out their dusty robes; parents have loaded new film into their cameras. But things are not as simple or inspiring for the young people who are supposed to leave the university’s protective cloister and fend for themselves in an uncertain world.
Madeleine dreams of pursuing her love of literature in graduate school, while Leonard imagines his scientific brilliance will carry him to great and noteworthy discoveries. Mitchell, on the other hand, is convinced that his fate will involve marrying Madeleine and studying religion. Over the course of The Marriage Plot, these individual visions of the future are derailed and complicated in various ways. The novel focuses on how life gravitates towards the messy and unexpected, rather than conforming to the standard happy endings we’ve come to expect.
As these characters orbit one another, the reader becomes totally immersed in the hopes and failings of each. As a consequence, Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard feel like complete human beings, not shallow caricatures or empty composites.
Leonard’s character is an especially compelling example of how much depth and humanity emanates from The Marriage Plot. Even though he possesses spectacular intelligence, Leonard is hounded by a condition that weaponizes his greatest asset. The passages that describe Leonard’s experience of bipolar disorder are among the most affecting in the entire novel. Following a mental breakdown, Leonard is prescribed a recuperative regimen that includes as much Lithium as his body can tolerate. Lithium’s side effects make Leonard question whether functioning is really worth the sacrifice, however. His mind is murky, his body slow and shaky. He is frustrated by his situation, but he believes he has an inherent ability to outsmart both the illness and the medication. While it would be easy to cast Leonard’s strategies as mere delusions of grandeur, or indications of an impending manic episode, Eugenides portrays the struggle differently, making the reader painfully aware that Leonard’s internal war is driven by a profound desire to recapture the lustrous allure his life and future once had.
Characterizations like this make an otherwise solid novel brilliant and haunting. Eugenides treats Leonard, Madeleine, and Mitchell like fully realized entities, and it’s tempting to keep thinking about them after the book ends.