Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

by Jenn (eating bender) on April 3, 2012

Our most recent book club choice was Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. I think you’ll find this particular review to be a bit different than others I’ve done, as this book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. Hopefully it will still prove helpful.


In Short

Read this book first and foremost if you are either an English major or book lover who enjoys reading books that make references to some of the many works – both commonplace and obscure – that make up a literary education. This novel is packed with references. It also paints a vivid picture of what life was like for college students in the early 1980s, which ironically was not so different from now given that the economy was just as lackluster. It’s a novel about life at its most fragile – those tentative first few years after graduation where you aren’t really ready or prepared to be an adult, but have to figure it out anyway. As you can probably guess from the title, love also plays a role, but it’s in a way that you would not normally expect. The book is not inherently romantic, in my opinion. It’s a bit more complicated and, at times, frustrating – but I think that was Eugenides’ goal.

The Details

The book is told from the perspective of three protagonists. There is Madeleine Hanna, an “incurable romantic” who loves Victorian literature and the idea of the marriage plot that abounded in novels from Jane Austen and the like. There is Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious studies major with unrequited love for Madeleine who decides to embark on a journey across the world upon graduation in an attempt to ease his heartache. And there is Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant and handsome student who catches Madeleine’s eye and effectively completes the love triangle while bringing plenty of his own personal challenges to the relationship. The book kicks off on graduation day at Brown in 1982, taking the reader on a year’s journey that includes plenty of back story while also being propelled forward by a series of dramatic events in each character’s present-day life.

In all honesty, one of the reviewers summed up exactly how I felt about this book: “For a number of reasons, I’m glad I read and finished this novel; at the same time however, I’m left dissatisfied and disappointed.”

I’m glad I read it because it got a lot of praise and accolades, so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It also kept my interest the entire time, and I was always intrigued enough to read on rather than putting the book down. But it’s not necessarily a book that stuck with me (ahem) and made me think, “Wow!” when I had finished.

Perhaps this just isn’t my kind of writing, but the author’s relationship with the characters felt cold and distant, almost as if he was looking down on them and judging their actions. As a result, I didn’t find myself feeling emotionally attached to any of them, and by the time the novel ended I felt as though Eugenides was more concerned about doing something “different” than he was with telling a real, compelling story. It was as though the book were written specifically to poke fun at the significance of its title, rather than being centered on a gripping, moving plot.

Maybe I’m crazy. I certainly would like to hear thoughts from anyone who has read this book already, whether you loved it or hated it. And if you haven’t read it, I’m not trying to dissuade you from doing so. I’m personally glad I did and if anything, would encourage it as a book that does not fit the “norm.” I would just advise going into it with the expectation that you are reading something more for the unique literary devices being used than you are the story itself.

Edited to add: The team at Macmillan Audio contacted me after reading my review and were kind enough to share this five-minute web clip from the audiobook. You can download the full version here if you’re interested. Enjoy!


Have you read The Marriage Plot? If so, what did you think?



{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Cara (Twinthusiast) April 3, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Agreed. I love character-driven fiction, and these characters were totally lackluster. Not every character needs to be an all-star, but I found none of these likeable, identifiable, or even remotely interesting. I really wanted to like this book, given as you mention that it’s for bibliophiles, but I simply could not hitch my wagon on the plot (or total lack thereof). So there, that’s my even harsher opinion. Pulitzer, blech.
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2 Jenn (eating bender) April 4, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Your honesty is refreshing! :) Couldn’t agree more, from one fan of character-driven fiction to another. If anything, it made me think twice about how I treat my own characters!


3 Kelli April 3, 2012 at 10:32 pm

I really hated Madeleine. Such a boring character!


4 Jenn (eating bender) April 4, 2012 at 4:16 pm

I just never felt like I was connected to her or compelled to care deeply, which is what I love most about books. It was unfortunate.


5 Lindsay @ Running the Windy City April 4, 2012 at 9:11 am

I liked The Marriage Plot but only because I like the way that Eugenides writes. He’s very blunt and honest and I felt like that was one of the best parts of this book. That being said, I had extremely high expectations after reading Middlesex and The Marriage Plot fell short.
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6 Jenn (eating bender) April 4, 2012 at 4:17 pm

I do respect his honesty and actually, am inspired to check out Middlesex after hearing from you and several others who said that The Marriage Plot was nowhere near his potential. So I suppose on the bright side, he kept my interest enough to make me want to read his other works!


7 Julie @Savvy Eats April 4, 2012 at 2:32 pm

bookmarking this to come back to later — this book is the next one on my reading list, and i don’t want to spoil it 😉
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8 Jenn (eating bender) April 4, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Awesome! I will be very curious to hear what you think. :)


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