The Marriage Plot is good old-fashioned love triangle, centered on Madeleine, a pretty, privileged girl who loves Victorian literature, her brilliant boyfriend Leonard, who is struggling with manic-depression, and Mitchell, a very nice boy on a religious quest who is convinced that Madeleine is his future wife. The book takes place in 1982, and follows the characters through the year following their graduation from Brown University.
The few reviews I've read sort of pan the book as "realistic," as if that's a negative thing, and too focused on relationships, which is just silly. It's called The Marriage Plot - what did you expect? And now it's time for a confession - I like realistic novels about quiet, domestic drama. This feels like a boring admission, and that's the problem. A lot of my cohorts in the program are into experimental forms and subjects, and while I enjoy and even write those kinds of things, when I'm looking for a good, thick novel in which to lose myself, I'm almost always drawn to this kind - the ones that deal with people in a world that I recognize, and the moments of transformation and transcendence that break open their lives. Which is probably why I related to Madeleine so much - in a world where semiotics, punk rock, and nihilism are popularly embraced, Madeleine clings to Jane Austen, to a world where relationships are the plot.
The central question of the book is whether the traditional marriage plot in novels - the idea that the central conflict is about love, and resolved by a happy marriage - is dead. This is the basis of the thesis that Madeleine is writing for her senior project, and while the project - and academia in general - kicks off the book, that idea becomes buried in the ensuing 300 pages, resurfacing only at the end. Which I did not mind. While I enjoyed the book very much, the first 100 pages were the most difficult to get through. There are quite a few classroom scenes and conversations about the reading, which made me feel like I was once again a pretentious undergrad. Looking back, I see those sections as a sort of prerequisite for the rest of the book - Eugenides had to get us up to speed so that we could grasp the depths of the book in later chapters. It's a tough structure to pull off, and I think he did it as well as he could.
The book is written in third person, alternating between the three characters (though Leonard only gets one section, which is a shame - I thought he was so interesting). The book is very much idea- and thought-driven, with most of the important action and conflict taking place in the characters minds, memories, and feelings. I felt a very real intimacy with the characters, a closeness that made me so invested in their lives, which is probably why I read the whole thing in four days - I had to know what would happen next, how many mistakes they would make, and who would finally end up with who.
I won't spoil the end for you, but I will say that the marriage plot isn't dead after all. It's alive and well in this book, even if it has undergone a thoroughly modern twist.
Also, I can't end this without mentioning how much this book - especially in the early sections - reminded me of the book I hate most of all, Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons. Tom, THIS is how you write about college students without offending every woman in existence. Please take note.