In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Carlin Romano called Jeffrey Eugenides‘s The Marriage Plot “the most entertaining campus novel since Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons.” Which is wrong on so many levels, I hardly know where to begin. But here goes:
First, it’s a huge stretch to call The Marriage Plot a “campus novel.” Yes, the book opens on campus–specifically, on the campus of Brown University, on graduation day, 1982. Which means that almost any action that happens on campus happens in one sort of flashback or another. There’s enough chatter about deconstruction and Derrida and Foucault and Roland Barthes to titillate anyone who was an English major in the 80s and confuse and annoy anyone who wasn’t. And, yes, the relationships among the three major characters–Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell–were established at Brown. But most of the forward motion of the narrative takes place in the year after college. Calling The Marriage Plot a “campus novel” is like calling Moby-Dick “a Nantucket novel.”
Second: I Am Charlotte Simmons was a piece of crap. For all his redeeming qualities as a writer, Tom Wolfe has three that make you want to throw the book across the room, and he should not be allowed to write about youth culture. I Am Charlotte Simmons should have been called Grandpa Pretends He’s a College Girl.
Finally, The Marriage Plot is not all that entertaining. The characters are interesting enough: Madeleine is a rich-girl romantic; Mitchell is a seeker of Meaning and Spiritual Enlightenment; and Leonard, the David Foster Wallace stand-in, is a brilliant, bipolar mess. Eugenides never lets fancy writing get in the way of storytelling, but there’s not much story to tell.
Maybe I’m just bored with bildungsromans. Madeleine comes of age, and Mitchell comes of age, and Leonard’s mental illness overwhelms him–and, to be honest, the book. The view inside Leonard’s head is the most interesting part of the story, and there’s a certain irresistible melancholy that attaches to all the characters as they find out that things are different and difficult out in the real world.
But it doesn’t add up to much. Let’s just say The Marriage Plot is the most entertaining Jeffrey Eugenides novel since Middlesex. And I’m hoping to say exactly the same thing about his next book.