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Jeffrey Eugenides returns with 'The Marriage Plot'

As an undergraduate at Brown University, Jeffrey Eugenides never imagined he would be living like this.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As an undergraduate at Brown University, Jeffrey Eugenides never imagined he would be living like this.

The 51-year-old author is a Pulitzer Prize winner, Oprah Winfrey book club pick and author of one of this fall's most anticipated novels, "The Marriage Plot," the rare book to get a billboard advertisement in Times Square. A husband and father and faculty member at Princeton University, he lives in a Tudor house overlooking white pines, hemlocks and a swimming pool.

But he's also an artist and a "worried soul," and he wonders if his luck will hold up.

"What if things don't work out? What if one's moment in the sun is brief?" he says, seated on the back deck of his house during a recent afternoon interview. "My father was a successful businessman who lost a lot of his wealth at the end of his life. And my grandfather was a successful immigrant who lost a lot of his wealth at the end of his life. I feel like there's a Eugenides curse, so I'm trying to be prudent and offset these possibilities."

Prudence means keeping a position at Princeton, even though he probably didn't need the money, thanks to his million-selling "Middlesex." Meanwhile, the artist looked back to his college years and wrote "The Marriage Plot," a self-consciously literary story set in Brown in the early 1980s that follows the choices of three high-minded seniors: Madeleine Hanna, bookish and beautiful and insecure; the brilliant, but unstable Leonard Bankhead; and the truth-seeking, romantic Mitchell Grammaticus.

The ideal character has a life of its own and Madeleine stopped taking orders from the author pretty much from conception. Eugenides had been working on a novel about a family throwing a debutante party when a brief interlude about a college student's return became a narrative of its own. The student was Madeleine and the party was set aside.

"The Marriage Plot" is a three-way affair in the tradition of Henry James' "Portrait of a Lady" and Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence," and an updating of such classic 19th-century stories of entrapped women as "Madame Bovary" and "Anna Karenina." Madeleine has the luck to be born when she's free to decide which man, if any, she'll end up with. Her troubles are not from thwarted desire, but from not knowing what her desires are.

"I don't usually start with the idea that I'm going to write a novel trying to reinvent or play with the marriage plot in a modern context," Eugenides says. "I just started writing about this girl in college and her romantic entanglements, her love of books and ... little by little it (the idea) worked its way in. It seemed to be intrinsic to the story. It took me a while to work that in and use it as a governing metaphor for the whole story."

Eugenides is a dependably unhurried writer, taking nine years to finish "Middlesex" and another nine to turn in "The Marriage Plot." He might still be working on it if his editor and publisher at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Jonathan Galassi, hadn't decided enough was enough. The author says Galassi "lets me go and at the end he cracks the whip." Galassi recalls a gentler resolution.

"I did urge him to come to closure with it," Galassi says. "I reminded him that it takes a long time to publish a book."

Eugenides says he has long been conflicted between the modernist desire to experiment and an old-fashioned comfort with character and plot, what Madeleine calls the guilty pleasure of one sentence following "logically from the sentence before." He is a risk taker and entertainer, with an audience willing to play along. "The Virgin Suicides," later adapted into a Sofia Coppola film of the same name, used a first person plural narrative for its story of a family's downfall in 1970s suburban Detroit. "Middlesex" was a multigenerational epic narrated by a hermaphrodite — a human with male and female sexual organs — that appealed both to Winfrey and to Pulitzer judges.

"The Marriage Plot" is a narrative about narratives, its title lifted from a seminar Madeleine takes in junior year about marriage and 19th-century fiction. We know the characters in Eugenides' novel in part from what they read, so that an awakening of religious interest in Mitchell leads him to St. Augustine, or that Leonard's encyclopedic curiosity takes in both Spinoza and modern Kenyan literature, or that Madeleine learns about love in part from Roland Barthes' "A Lover's Discourse."

"Here was a book addressed to lovers, a book about being in love that contained the word love in just about every sentence," Eugenides writes. "And, oh, how she loved it!"

Eugenides, a mortgage banker's son, was born in Detroit in 1960 and grew up in suburban Grosse Pointe, Mich. By high school, he knew he wanted to write and pursued his calling with professional diligence. He read as much as possible and at Brown lobbied to get into the class of a favored professor, novelist John Hawkes, by visiting his office and quoting from one of his books.

"He (Hawkes) didn't expect everyone to write experimental fiction, at all," says fellow author and Brown alumnus Rick Moody. "And to my recollection, Jeff was not writing terribly experimental work then. It was not ordinary kitchen sink realism, but it was pretty linear and there were characters and emotions and so on."

After graduating, Eugenides went to San Francisco, wrote for the sailing magazine Yachtsman and studied at Stanford University, his experimental side encouraged by author and faculty member Gilbert Sorrentino. Dumped by his then-girlfriend and running out of money, Eugenides moved to New York and worked as executive secretary for the Academy of American Poets. His boss at the time, Bill Wadsworth, remains a close friend despite having to fire Eugenides for caring more about the novel he was writing than the job he was paid for.

"It became apparent that Jeff was typing 'The Virgin Suicides' on the academy's letterhead when he was supposed to be doing my correspondence," Wadsworth says with a laugh. "He didn't speak to me for about eight weeks, but in the meantime FSG picked up the book. He's a born stylist and that was apparent at the time."

Eugenides did some stage work at Brown and compares writing to an actor inflating a small part of himself into a full person. It's a gift shared by the narrator in "Middlesex," who can look around a table and imagine what everyone is thinking. So Eugenides has inhabited a restaurant owner watching his business destroyed during the 1967 riots in Detroit in "Middlesex," or the manic-depressive Leonard in "The Marriage Plot." He relates no more to Mitchell, a fellow Greek-American from Michigan, than he does to Madeleine.

"I do it by basically assuming a woman's experience is not that completely different from a man's, and a lot of things Madeleine thinks and a lot of things she feels are things I have felt in my life," he says. "The core of her feelings, core of her personality, is maybe 60 percent my own and 40 percent women I have known and having some idea of their lives and their interior situations."

"The Marriage Plot" is not a historical novel, but enough time has passed for the author and others to notice changes between his college years and the present. The 1960s were long over, but "finding yourself" was still more important than choosing a career. Graduates from that era include such authors as Moody and Donald Antrim, and screenwriter Steven Katz ("Shadow of the Vampire"), a former roommate of the author who calls the novel "so perfectly evocative of Brown in the early '80s that, every time I put it down, I was floored by a wave of sadness and nostalgia at the thought that, in that instant, it was 30 years later."

Eugenides teaches creative writing at Princeton's Lewis Center for the Arts, working with students hardly born when "Virgin Suicides" was published. The kids seem just as bright now, he says, but a bit more businesslike, unlikely to emulate the young Eugenides who walked with a cane in homage to James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus.

"They don't seem so different than the people at Brown, but I find that the students now are very mature and are not acting out in all the ways we did. They don't dress strangely. They're not going through an obvious phase where they're wearing a Mohawk or dressing in tin foil," he says.

"(At Brown) we wanted to be artists and we wanted to be writers and had affectations that expressed those desires. I don't see that in my students. They're more uniform in their behavior. They might want to be artists, but maybe they're calmer about it."