Some opening paragraphs are just too good: ‘To start with, look at all the books…’ it begins, going on to describe what Madeleine hopes (and fears) her bookshelves full of Austen, Eliot and Bronte say about her. It’s a lovely start and pretty much downhill from there. We are in the early 1980s, Madeleine’s an attractive, intelligent student at Brown University, in love with the intense, intelligent Leonard and loved from afar by the intelligent, duller Mitchell. Did I mention that everyone is intelligent? Madeleine is finishing her English degree and this is to some extent a novel about other novels – Victorian ones in the main. It’s also a novel about all the research Jeffrey Eugenides has been doing: look over there and you can read what it’s like to visit a hospital in Calcutta; this bit here is ‘what I know about structuralism’ (and since the story is about someone reading literature, see how I can just sprinkle musings about, and quotes from, Derrida throughout and you’ll probably think it’s relevant in some way) and, by the way, if you ever want to be a research scientist, this is how you do in-depth experiments on yeast. Campus intrigues have made for wonderful recent books such as Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. The Marriage Plot isn’t one of them. So anyway, Leonard is on lithium, Madeleine is married to him, Mitchell is away in India finding himself during long chapters of travelogue. The upshot of Madeleine’s own will-she/won’t-she/with whom odyssey is bathetic and open-ended but, oddly, feels as though the author hasn’t summoned the energy to pull all the strings together*. For all that, the book rarely seems out of puff and however shoehorned-in some of the detail is, there is plenty to please along the way – it’s not the tedious waste of life that Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club is, for example. But you still end, I think, with rather less than you started with.
(* Having suffered from the structuralists, semoticians and post-structuralists, I am delighted to report that Derrida – even in bite-sizes – remains as impenetrable as ever)