Jeffrey Eugenides’s third novel begins with the despair of a broken-hearted twenty-two-year-old woman. The setting is Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, where it is graduation day for Madeleine, as the young woman is called, and her literary circle of friends. The tone is satirical, but gently so. Eugenides also attended Brown as an undergraduate and, in his fifties now, he looks back at the self-dramatizing ways of his young characters with avuncular tolerance. It is an effective attitude, for the most part, though sometimes it imbues the writing with a slightly clinical aura, the characters like captured specimens in a jar. Madeleine is attractive, intelligent, well-off—a banquet of possibilities seems to lie ahead of her. Her parents are what we would expect them to be: protective, progressive, entering the late stage of a long, successful marriage.
The year is 1982, three short decades ago, and one of the pleasures of The Marriage Plot is the subtle way in which it calibrates how much things have changed. We are before e-mail and text- ing, when a certain mystery of absence was still at play in human relations and periods of silence were less apt to be regarded as a social insult. Personal messages are handwritten and then lost, shared land-line phones often busy. Posted letters arrive after the intended recipient has moved away, and the network of news about acquaintances and friends is more subject to chance.
The cause of Madeleine’s despair is Leonard, also a senior at Brown, who recently broke up with her. Like the hermaphrodite narrator of Middlesex, Eugenides’s second novel (with which otherwise The Marriage Plot has little in common), Leonard has been struck with genetic lightning, in his case manic-depression. It was in a state of rising depression that he ended their relationship, possibly to punish himself, possibly to protect Madeleine from what he knew was to come. Unaware of Leonard’s illness, Madeleine imagines him callously enjoying himself without her. In reality, he is in the psychiatric ward at Providence Hospital.
A common element of psychosis is megalomania—every sign and gesture, menacing or joyous, radiates like jet fuel toward the suffering self. The relief of objectivity is beyond attainment. Romantic love, Eugenides’s novel suggests, may be its own form of mania: the narrowing of the mind to a single object of desire. “Every lover is mad, we are told. But can we imagine a madman in love?” asks Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse, a book that plays a pivotal part in The Marriage Plot. The answer that Eugenides eventually supplies to Barthes’s question is satisfyingly complex. But what is love, exactly? One of the novel’s epigraphs is the famous maxim of La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.”
It is a small leap from this to Denis de…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.