"The Marriage Plot" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Jeffrey Eugenides: Madeleine Hanna is a college senior at the beginning of Jeffrey Eugenides' lively novel, "The Marriage Plot," a starry-eyed English major who just spent four years devouring British novels about the romantic tribulations of upper-class young women and their striving suitors.
As college winds down and Madeleine heads uncertainly for adulthood, she finds herself mired in a love triangle that might have been pulled straight from one of her beloved books. Two men vie for her affection, both flawed but also with plenty to offer.
"The Marriage Plot" is both a love story and a novel about love stories: The term itself, academic in origin, refers to mostly 18th- and 19th-century novels that concerned often difficult courtships between young women and their romantic pursuers. They usually ended with a marriage.
Eugenides uses early chapters to establish that heady duality, but then the novel's later sections largely abandon the brainy approach in favor of a deep focus on about a year in the life of his three main characters. In that turn toward traditional storytelling, "The Marriage Plot" is an appealing yarn that may nonetheless leave fans missing the more expansive nature of the author's earlier novels.
Eugenides is in the handful of decidedly literary novelists to enjoy true popular success. Sofia Coppola made a well-received film of his 1993 novel, "The Virgin Suicides," and he won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2002 novel, "Middlesex," which also earned the coveted Oprah Winfrey endorsement.
Where "The Virgin Suicides" was intimate and spooky, "Middlesex" was bold and far-reaching as it tied the scope of a historical epic to the fraught tale of an intersex man's coming of age. But the books shared a mythical quality that "The Marriage Plot," for all its enjoyments, does not summon.
By shifting toward realism, Eugenides puts the spotlight more directly on the motives and decisions of Madeleine along with the two men in her life, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus. Sentimental and impulsive, Madeleine hails from a loving family of fading WASP nobility and falls easily under the spell of books and ideas. She meets Leonard in a senior-year class on semiotics, drawn to the brilliant biology major's gruff plain-spokenness amid the pretentiousness of her fellow English majors.
Embarking on a whirlwind romance with Leonard, Madeleine is thrilled to be swept up in the kind of turbulent courtship she's mostly only read about. But Leonard, like so many of literature's mysterious male love interests, has a dark secret that only slowly reveals itself: Since high school, he's struggled with bipolar symptoms, swinging between increasingly frequent bouts of crippling depression interspersed with outbreaks of dangerously manic behavior.
Mitchell, friends with Madeleine since their freshman year, watches angrily as she seems to fall under Leonard's sway. Mitchell and Madeleine's friendship has been marked by missed opportunities and unrequited love, and he is convinced that they are meant to be together even as she grows more frustrated by his prickly, sarcastic nature.
As Leonard and Madeleine make post-college plans together, religious studies major Mitchell travels across Europe and Asia on what turns into a quasi-spiritual quest as he struggles to forget Madeleine. Leonard's searching, at times painful, is a refreshingly rare treatment of religion in a mainstream novel, and it's not surprising to learn — as Eugenides revealed recently in a Newsweek interview — that the Mitchell character was in large part autobiographical.
Eugenides steers effortlessly through the intertwining tales of his three protagonists, shifting seamlessly among their three viewpoints and overlapping their stories in a way that's easy to follow and never labored. His prose is smooth but never flashy, and his eye for the telling detail or gesture is keen. Slowly but confidently he fleshes out his characters, and as they slowly accrue weight and realism, readers will feel increasingly opinionated about the choices they make.
Not knowing what do with her English degree and feeling increasingly isolated with Leonard as he spends a yearlong fellowship at a prestigious research laboratory on Cape Cod, Madeleine struggles to reconcile her love for Leonard with a dawning realization of the seriousness of his mental illness. Leonard himself, aware of the ambitious life plans of his friends and classmates, struggles to gather the will to simply get up each morning. Mitchell lands in India, where he tests the limits of his spiritual awakening by volunteering at Mother Teresa's clinic.
It's heavy stuff, but Eugenides distinguishes himself from too many novelists who seem to think a somber tone equates to a serious purpose. "The Marriage Plot" is fun to read and ultimately affirming.
And yes, there's a wedding near the end of the book. But, like in life, it's not where the story stops.