The Unparalleled Power of Unrequited Love

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / November/December 2011
November 28th, 2011

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides '82 (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). 


The story is as old as the hills: good boy loves good girl, who—sigh—loves bad boy. In this case, kind, sensitive Mitchell Grammaticus (who bears a strong resemblance to his creator, Jeffrey Eugenides) secretly and unrequitedly adores his Brown classmate Madeleine Hanna, a pretty, tennis-playing WASP whose love of novels is exceeded only by her passion for a moody scientific genius named Leonard Bankhead. Leonard, however, doesn't really love anyone, least of all himself. His toilet training was terrible; plus, he suffers from manic depression and can't resist tinkering with his lithium doses. In other words, he's Bad Marriage Material.

Eugenides's new novel, The Marriage Plot, derives its title from the storyline that provided such eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novelists as Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, and George Eliot with rich material. In an attempt to prove that the plot is still powerful, Eugenides tells the story of these three young lovers in the months leading up to and following their graduation from Brown in 1983. It's a seemingly straightforward realist narrative, told directly, humorously, and ultimately quite movingly.

Like his characters, Eugenides graduated from Brown in the early 1980s, having studied English literature, creative writing, and religion. And like most literary students of that era, he was strongly influenced by the French deconstructionist critics who were then in vogue. The Marriage Plot had its origins, he says, in a vision of a girl encountering Roland Barthes's essay The Lover's Discourse and suddenly finding her love life on the rocks. She wonders: Is romantic love only a figment of our literary imagination? And, if so, what does that say about her passion for Leonard Bankhead?

Eugenides's first novel, The Virgin Suicides, is about five sisters who kill themselves, but it's told in the first-person plural, from the perspective of a group of neighborhood boys who are fascinated by the suicides—a postmodern perspective that made it a cult classic of sorts. Eugenides followed that early success with Middlesex, a sprawling multigenerational romp that starts with an incestuous coupling in Smyrna and results in the birth of a hermaphrodite grandchild a generation later in Detroit. It won the Pulitzer Prize, was chosen by Oprah for her book club, and sold upwards of three million copies.

With The Marriage Plot, Eugenides tackles something simpler: a love story. But he places it in the shadow of literary and intellectual fashion. Brown graduates from that era will delight in the pitch-perfect portrayal of the campus, which includes students smoking clove cigarettes and eating bagels down at RISD's Carr House.

But, behind the wry humor and tongue-in-cheek philosophy, Eugenides does something tricky, which is to address the role of religion in a postmodern age. It's here that the book's deeper significance lies. During his time at Brown, Mitchell Grammaticus, like his creator, dallies with and then delves into religious studies. He ends up taking a life-altering course in contemporary Christian thought, which helps propel him toward Roman Catholicism and a pilgrimage to work with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Mitchell is no saint, however, and he's squeamish around the lepers, all but dropping one poor patient and fleeing the scene in shame. As Eugenides puts it, "We can't all be Mother Teresa."

That's for sure. But some of us can help just by telling stories, and that's something Jeffrey Eugenides does with both humor and grace.

Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 is the BAM's managing editor.


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November/December 2011