Jeffrey Euginedes – “The Marriage Plot”

“We’re trying to find out why the progeny of a given cell division can acquire different developmental fates.”

This statement comes from Leonard, one of three in this wonderfully odd and oddly wonderful novel about a love triangle (of sorts).

Leonard’s concern about “developmental fates” comes about half-way through the tale. Leonard goes on to chat about pheromones, haploid cells and asymmetry. It turns out there are two types of haploid cells, Leonard explains. Some are mother cells that can bud and create new cells and others are daughter cells that can’t.

There are a “million possible reasons for this asymmetry,” Leonard explains.  And he is determined to identify what it is.

Just as Leonard Bankhead is studying yeast cells (and watching haploid cells elongate prior to mating—yes, elongate) so is Jeffrey Eugenides pouring through the fine-grain, microscopic detail of the great love novels and turning them inside out, probing for the precise reason why they work.

The Marriage Plot, in fact, works. (Yes, I liked his other two books better, Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, but here also Eugenides’ effortless imagination is on full display.)

The Marriage Plot plays with literature, toys with story arcs (and almost tells you it’s doing so) and teases with heaps of literary references. There’s not quite the author-voice intrusion of, say, John Fowles in French Lieutenant’s Woman but you can almost sense Euginedes turning to the camera and saying, “now, watch this.”

These are three full-blown people: Madeline Hanna, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus. They interact, overlap, influence each other’s lives. They push and pull, repel and attract, elongate and shrink back. The bulk of the action here takes place in 1982—such an in-between year, a transition point. The list of topics touched in The Marriage Plot would be a long one but start with depression, motherhood, traditions, religion, rites, love, lust, desire, marriage (duh), Big Medicine and fiction and its role in our lives.

Euginedes stitches these three characters’ lives together and then watches the threads strain, fray and snap. The structure of the book is a treat—seeing the same scene from multiple perspectives, gaining insights with each new telling. The ending is near magic, down to the final few words. It’s a final confirmation, in case there was any question, that we readers are happily manipulated creatures.

We follow these three in various combinations from Rhode Island to Cape Cod, Paris, Calcutta and back. (For me, the Calcutta seems started to drag and Euginedes pushed the envelope of believability.) The story simultaneously circles the globe and caves in on itself and we see three individuals crash back toward each other, electrons orbiting the same atom and unable to pull themselves away. There’s a whole world out there, a “million possible reasons” for why these people are the way they are. You can look all you want, Euginedes seems to be saying, and sometimes people are just the way they are—willing to go to another party and hope for a chance encounter with love.

At the end, I had the feeling that college graduation day is almost a permanent state of being for these three—its own bizarre form of peculiar and permanent purgatory. Euginedes lets us watch these three try on new skins, test out new wings and try to find new ways to fly.

Key word: try.

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