In reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ third novel, I found much I could relate to. The three main characters, recent Brown undergraduates, Madeline, Leonard, and Mitchell, struggle to find a place for themselves in the world. Through deep and meaningful reflection, which is unique to each personality and the difficulties he or she encounters, the three search for fulfillment and meaning in life as they construct their futures page by page. In this well-rounded and true to life account of young educated individuals and their relationships among each other, Eugenides reminds the reader not only of a time when he or she too had some of life’s most significant decisions to make. His vast knowledge of the challenges and thought processes of each character is apparent: Madeline’s passion for literature and semiotics, Leonard’s manic depression, and Mitchell’s pursuit of spirituality, are written as only one with experience in these matters could do. Yet, despite several qualities and personal battles that all people can relate to, it is entirely conceivable that the thoughts and mannerisms of Madeline, Leonard, and Mitchell are neither interesting nor applicable to the average reader.
I could understand the characters. Partially, this is because I have spent the entirety of my young adult life surrounded by university professors and students. The author’s inclusion of these facets of his own existence flows from the pages with the intelligence, worldliness, and knowledge of his characters. It should not come as a surprise that a writer of Eugenides’ caliber is extremely well read, and for an English major like myself, his many references to books, authors, history, religion, and geography to name a few, were a delight to take in. I am by no means the authority on what the average person knows. However, I have read a lot of books, taken university courses in all of these topics, and there were still references to people and ideas I did not know. Due to the consistent referral to all the author has learned both as an academic and reader, it seemed as though people who had not spent their life engaging in such pursuits might have a more difficult time finding connections to portions of the text. Putting aside university life, which is only part of the novel’s range of themes, there are many other facets that delve into the human experience.
The love triangle among Madeline, Leonard, and Mitchell is intriguing. A reason this particular combination of relationships works is due to the fact that perspectives are provided from all sides, creating the possibility for the reader to have truly experienced a relationship from the point-of-view of at least one of the characters involved. Madeline struggles with her feelings for two men, Leonard battles his manic depression, which at times makes him irresistible and others repulsive, and Mitchell believes that if he can find himself through faith, his feelings for the girl he cannot have will diminish. Leonard, for example is given a chance to communicate his side of things as he maps out the history of his disease from his childhood in Portland, to his stays in the psychiatric ward, and back to his apartment with Madeline.
The gravity of emotions the reader feels through the author’s portrayal of the striving youth delivers an intimate impact as only a multigenre approach can do. The audience reads prose, nonfiction, epistolary, and poetry. Madeline and Mitchell, who are separated by continents, are still able to remain attached in a remarkable and touching fashion through their letters. Although Madeline loves her live-in boyfriend and future husband Leonard, her platonic feelings for Mitchell remain an inkling of other possibilities. Madeline knows that Mitchell loves her, and he always has since they became friends freshman year. Although Leonard is what Madeline thought she wanted and needed when she couldn’t have him, like most people once she possesses the desired, it is no longer as valuable. As though the characters are family members or close friends, both sympathy and misunderstanding are elicited in the mind of the reader.
The Marriage Plot is specifically about the three main characters, but it also becomes about the reader. The brilliance of showing a variety of angles to the story proves that even the closest people exist in alternate universes. That none of the tale is truly happy, and things don’t necessarily work out in the short time span the reader spends with the characters, makes their plights all the more powerful. There are many ideas to take out of the novel; but, in the end I was reminded of a song and a motto a roommate once sang to me during my undergraduate years over a loss I would inevitably recover from:
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, well you just might find
You get what you need
-The Rolling Stones
Rating: 4 out 5 Stars
Watch: The Virgin Suicides film (1999)