The three young protagonists of The Marriage Plot, we are told on page 21, are "pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they'd done in first grade: reading stories."
Jeffrey Eugenides' third novel begins in the early 1980s on a prestigious university campus. Coming after his 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides (which centred on the suicides of five sisters) and his Pulitzer-winning 2002 novel Middlesex (which covered hermaphroditism, incest, the history of Greek-Turkish conflict and American immigration and industrialisation), it reads almost as a challenge that the author has set himself. Compared with the cataclysmic personal and historical events in his previous novels, how does an author engage a reader with three privileged, self-absorbed undergraduates with apparently nothing more serious going on in their lives than Post-Structuralism?
"The Marriage Plot: Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot, and James" is an honors seminar taken by Madeleine Hanna, the pretty girl from Prettybrook, New Jersey, at the centre of the story. The premise of the seminar, and Madeleine's final paper, is that the novel was at its most successful in the days when a good marriage was essential, and has become ever more meaningless since then. "What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?"
Madeleine is loved by Mitchell Grammaticus, a spiritual-curious theologian, but she falls for the mercurial Leonard Bankhead, whom she meets in Semiotics class. This being 1982, The Author is dead and the academic world is besotted by Roland Barthes and his A Lover's Discourse. The problem is (finds Madeleine), intellectually deconstructing love does not prevent her from falling head over heels with Leonard in the manner of an ingénue in an English novel. Not even when she finds out that he suffers from barely-managed bi-polar disorder. Not even when she throws a copy of Barthes' book at his head.
The novel rushes onward in Eugenides' trademark style, full of looping-back explanations and sharp dialogue – including a particularly wonderful scene involving Leonard, yeast cells and Madeleine's brilliantly-characterised Wasp mother – as Leonard spirals inevitably out of control and Mitchell travels to India to devote himself to the poor. The men's twin spiritual insights are particularly well-handled: one during a manic high in a Monte Carlo casino; the other after a bhang lassi in Calcutta.
Eugenides takes many risks. Writing humorously about literary theory is always hard to pull off. Likewise, focusing on characters as difficult to get on with as Madeleine and Leonard could easily go wrong. The novel also illustrates the point that human history is speeding up: just as Sense and Sensibility could only have been published in the social climate of 200 years ago (almost to the day), The Marriage Plot has to pan out before the age of mobile phones and ebook readers. It seems to suggest that modern life makes the novel redundant.
All of this makes the book a remarkable achievement. To use a word that would have been taboo in a 1982 Semiotics class, the novel is "about" all of the things that good literature should be, and always has been, about: love; madness; the meaning of life; the impossibility of literature ... More than that, though, it is a brilliant example of the joy of doing something no different from what we've all done in first grade: reading stories.