[xrr rating=4.25/5]In our post-modern, post-structuralist, post-feminist, post-damn-near-everything era, is the concept of “love” antiquated, an artifact from a time when people spoke in totalizing terms about truth and human happiness? This question is central to The Marriage Plot, the latest effort from Jeffrey Eugenides, who rose to prominence after his first book The Virgin Suicides was adapted into a film by Sofia Coppola and his sophomore novel Middlesex was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Eugenides recounts the lives of three Brown University students in their fourth year. Madeleine is an English major who questions traditional notions of love even as she finds herself drawn to the so-called “marriage plot,” that narrative device running throughout English literature, finding its apotheosis in the novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot. Basically, the question of whether or not the characters will end up marrying the “right” people in the end has provided the dramatic impetus for scores of novels in the past. Not so much these days. As one of Madeleine’s professors puts it, “Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?” Madeleine’s interest in the marriage plot—she is writing her honors thesis on the subject—becomes more than theoretical when she falls for Leonard, a budding biologist with a personality that alternates between brooding and charismatic. On the sideline is Mitchell, a religious studies major whose romantic feelings for Madeleine are not, for the most part, reciprocated.

The Marriage Plot is set in the early 1980s, and Eugenides’ vivid depiction of time and place is one of the novel’s many pleasures. We witness the “dawn of deconstruction,” when academics started studying writing from a semiotic standpoint, analyzing common tropes and internal structural contradictions that ultimately challenge the notion that texts have inherent “meaning.” Literature students and the more trendy professors obsessed over the works of French theorists like Derrida, Barthes and Foucault. Eugenides’ focus on semiotics may sound dry or overly theoretical, but, to the author’s credit, Madeleine’s immersion into the world of deconstruction feels organic and relevant to her life. She wrestles with her feelings for Leonard primarily because of her training in the art of questioning the structural integrity of preconceived systems.

The novel begins on graduation day. We follow the characters through their post-college travails, but we also get frequent flashbacks to their Brown University days to see how their complex triangle came together. After commencement, Madeline moves to Cape Cod with Leonard, only to find that his multi-faceted nature is a result of severe mental instability, not just his quirky personality. Mitchell starts reading Christian mysticism and goes on a multi-national journey culminating in a stay at Mother Teresa’s Calcutta hospital for the dying.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Eugenides once worked in a similar hospital. The concurrent cultural milieus of The Marriage Plot, from the erotic-intellectual entanglements of Ivy League undergrads to the scientific pretention of postgrads at a Cape Cod research facility to the faux-spiritual enlightenment of upper-middle class East Coast kids in India, all testify to an author writing with the kind of confidence and attention to detail that comes through personal experience. Anyone who has questioned whether love is real or has suffered bravely through late adolescence, that weird time when identities and personal beliefs are up for grabs, can appreciate what Madeline, Leonard and Mitchell are going through.

Despite the novel’s spirit of playful self-reflexivity – it is, after all, a love story about a woman who questions the validity of love stories – the stakes for our young protagonists are real. We ride anxiously on their emotional rollercoasters with them. We find in the end that the question of whether our characters find true love isn’t as important as we were originally led to believe. The real concern is whether our heroes come to a true understanding of themselves. Eugenides is too much of a realist to fully resolve this issue by the end. As in real life, it’s the journey that really matters. The Marriage Plot is an emotionally and intellectually rewarding trip.

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