We may have waited patiently for nine years for a new novel from Jeffrey Eugenides, the Greek-American author whose works inspire fanatic devotion from critics and casual readers alike. But we won’t have to wait nearly as long to learn more about his latest work.
Eugenides' debut novel, 1993's The Virgin Suicides, is a beautiful portrait of adolescent ennui that’s pitch-perfect and relatable. Sofia Coppola’s 1999 film adaptation has a dreamy, slightly fuzzy aesthetic that brings Eugenides’ original text to life so fittingly that the film tops many lit critics lists of best book-to-screen scripts. Over a decade in the making, his follow-up novel, Middlesex, earned immediate acclaim, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and highlighting even further Eugenides’ knack for crafting female characters with depth and intelligence.
A crucial moment in Madeleine and Leonard’s relationship is defined by an argument on the intrinsic meaning of the word “love,” our heroine heartbroken by a conflict over linguistics.
The Marriage Plot reflects this talent well, introducing readers to a trio of friends whose complex relationships center around the alluring Madeleine Hanna. Set at Brown University (and, at various points, on Cape Cod and across a tour of European cities) in the 1980s, the novel focuses on both the academic and emotional interests of our highly literate yet socially confused antagonists.
We follow Madeleine, a restless lover of Austen and Barthes, as she becomes involved with Leonard, a brilliant but volatile scientist-philosopher battling increasingly intense bouts of debilitating depression. As the pair graduate and grapple with the reality of their future together, Madeleine’s old friend Mitchell — who has silently endured a deep, unrequited love for years — tours Europe, living monastically while immersing himself in religious philosophy to escape his hurt feelings.
While typical tropes of the post-grad novel are present — adapting to life without a safety net, struggling to define personal goals and standards — The Marriage Plot isn’t a youthful, predictable story of self-discovery. Eugenides' characters have depth, and their joys and failures aren’t simply listed but explored with acute tenderness. The Marriage Plot is also an incredibly academic novel; Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell are enthusiastically literate, their conversations and inner monologues peppered with casual references to Derrida and Lacan.
A crucial moment in Madeleine and Leonard’s relationship is defined by an argument on the intrinsic meaning of the word “love,” our heroine heartbroken by a conflict over linguistics. The scores of textual references woven into the novel might not be terribly accessible, but they shine like gems for readers who have similarly found comfort in philosophy and language.
Eugenides’ latest work is both vastly different from, and comfortingly similar to, his past books. Exploring lives by focusing on seemingly unremarkable details, Eugenides paints vivid worlds, both in the minds of his characters and the worlds they inhabit. The Marriage Plot is a beautiful novel — I’d even go so far as saying it’s “swoon-worthy.”
Jeffrey Eugenides will appear at the Wortham Center Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $5. For details, click here.