Eugenides does a playful but meaningful riff on George Eliot's Middlemarch with his 1982-set novel.
An idealistic young EngLit student, Madeleine Hanna, is his Dorothea Brooke, who is seduced by the dark, brooding, intellectually complex Leonard Bankhead (Casaubon) whilst all the time nicer, steadier, just-as-brainy Mitchell Grammaticus, standing in for Will Ladislaw, casts unrequited looks of love in her direction. Will the right boy get the girl?
From the very first sentence, this is a book for book lovers, but it's also about young love, how easy it is to make mistakes, how hard to rectify them. Leonard is a manic-depressive and the son of an alcoholic and a depressive; Madeleine, with her happy childhood and supportive parents and clear-eyed view of right and wrong, finds herself irresistibly drawn to Leonard's tortured psyche, blissfully ignoring Mitchell's suffering as he's forced to watch the girl he loves become involved with a known womaniser.
Eugenides is superb on teenage emotions – the one-upmanship, the intellectual pretensions combined with real unworldliness – without ever being patronising, and his psychological portraits are deep enough to keep us guessing without becoming impenetrable. It's impossible not to root for his Madeleine, every bit as we would have rooted for Eliot's Dorothea.