Fourth Estate, £20, 406pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Marriage Plot, By Jeffrey Eugenides

Madeleine Hanna, the 22-year-old heroine of Jeffrey Eugenides's long-awaited follow-up to Middlesex, is an English major unfashionably absorbed in Regency and Victorian literature. This is at a time, the early 1980s, when her contemporaries at Brown University are in thrall to the radical opacities of poststructuralism: "How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world."

And so it is with The Marriage Plot. Madeleine's senior thesis traces the development, and demise, of marriage as the structural basis of the novel, from the social comedies of Jane Austen through the starker complexities of George Eliot and Henry James, to its last, enfeebled gasp in John Updike's anatomies of infidelity. Eugenides's novel picks up where Madeleine's thesis leaves off. How might it be possible, a generation on from Updike, after the fragmentations of postmodernism, and the lesion of meaning from the institution itself, to make marriage the organising principle of your narrative without risking sentimentality or outright anachronism?

As Eugenides has written elsewhere, "multicultural" novels can get away with it, the societies they examine being "still bound by custom and tradition". But to the modern Western novelist, what conceivable use is "the greatest subject the novel ever had" when the great-great-granddaughters of James's Isabel Archer can forestall marital unhappiness simply by insisting on a prenup?

Like Emma Woodhouse, or Elizabeth Bennet, or Mrs Gaskell's young protagonists, Madeleine is sprightly and intelligent in inverse proportion to her worldliness. The novel charts her sentimental education, inflected, at least at first, by her exposure to a school of thought that casts being "in love" as nothing more than a cultural construct. It is an attractive idea to Madeleine, who is painfully, and (it seems) unrequitedly, infatuated with Leonard Bankhead, a philosophically inclined, emotionally unstable biology major in her Semiotics class.

The problem is, she doesn't buy a word of it: "She could read Barthes' deconstructions of love all day without feeling her love for Leonard diminish the teeniest little bit." Meanwhile, her "smart, sane, parent-pleasing" and thus fatally unsexy on-off friend Mitchell Grammaticus, lured from literature by the more stringent spiritual requirements of theological study, has fallen hard for Madeleine.

Eugenides clearly knows his theory, and the first third of The Marriage Plot constitutes a sort of campus novella, in which the love triangle is lucidly contextualised in the intellectual fashions of the time. What's striking is how little those fashions appear to have influenced the novel's composition. For a story quite so preoccupied, at least on the surface, with deconstruction and defamiliarisation, The Marriage Plot is sedulously unplayful, with the exception of the odd Pynchonian near-aptonym ("Bankhead", "Grammaticus", "Thurston Meems") and a (rather perfunctory) metafictional gesture on the final page.

Sentences follow logically from the sentence before. There are certainly people in it and, if Madeleine is ultimately faced with a choice that flirts with the schematic (the man of science vs the man of God), the place does for the most part resemble the world. The prose is sober, restrained in syntactic enterprise, serving a solidly constructed plot that advances only to loop back and, using a light, skilfully handled free-indirect style, cover the same ground from a different character's perspective.

In other words, it's a tender, well-written, compulsively readable, essentially conventional love story. Eugenides's response to the difficulty of writing a marriage plot, when marriage doesn't mean much anymore, has seemingly been to acknowledge that difficulty, then soldier on and write it anyway.

Where the novel begins to chafe against its self-restraint is in the figure of Leonard. After graduation, encouraged to pursue a career in academic theology, Mitchell goes off to find himself, first in Europe, then amid the (vividly evoked) squalor and suffering of Mother Teresa's Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta. Leonard, meanwhile, is following an opposite trajectory, failing to graduate and spending three weeks laid up in a psychiatric ward with severe depression.

Brought closer by the condition that had initially forced them apart, Leonard and Madeleine make a go of cohabitation, in the living quarters of a research laboratory on Cape Cod Bay. There Leonard is engaged in a study of the mating behaviour of yeast cells, which furnishes a terrific scene. Madeleine's uptight mother Phyllida, visiting with the older, more troubled sister Alwyn, listens to Leonard's elucidation of the science while quietly assessing his suitability as a mate for her daughter.

Leonard is clearly modelled on Eugenides's near-exact contemporary, the late David Foster Wallace. A big, bandanna-wearing guy with a delicate voice, he chews tobacco, labours under the perpetual threat of suicidal depression, and in his gifts for both literary theory and bioscience straddles the two cultures with an ease reminiscent of Wallace's multidisciplinary genius. Leonard's struggles to stave off mental illness prompt some of the most persuasive, if not to say Foster-Wallacean, writing in the book.

Eugenides compares Leonard's perception of "the huge tide of sadness" lithium prevents him from feeling to "squeezing a baggie full of water and feeling all the properties of the liquid without getting wet". In a thrilling, moving sequence towards the end, events in Leonard's life with Madeleine take a decisive tur. It's fitting that this complex, feelingly drawn character should, like Nabokov's Pnin, escape from the confines of the story into his own, unknowable future.

Nat Segnit's novel 'Pub Walks in Underhill Country' is published by Fig Tree

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin