A few months ago, I saw this Huffington Post article aimed at pinning down the “one perfect book” for all Myers-Briggs personality types. As a prototypical INFJ, I read the article with the hopes of being understood, while at the same time carrying a mound of contempt for anybody who would try to categorize me. Such social-lumping saturates the internet, and articles like this almost entirely appeal to micro-communities in rapid fire—almost every article attaches such hyperbolic statements like, “42 Reasons Why [insert X city, restaurant, book, television program] is the Greatest Ever!” It’s a whole lot of stimuli.
Now, let me pause and say that my review is in no way a lament of the internet. No. I just want to be perfectly clear of the origins of my cynicism and how, when the article instructed me that Jeffery Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is my literary soul mate, I proceeded to roll my eyes and declare to read it, hate it, and go on about my idealistic, INFJ life. As one can already expect, things didn’t exactly go as I planned.
The story begins on the morning of commencement for Brown University in 1982, where readers are introduced to Madeleine, an English major (and soon to be grad) with a full carriage of emotions—heartbreak from the end of her relationship with Leonard, one of our other main characters; anxiety due to her pending applications at graduate schools; annoyance towards her yuppie parents—all while nursing a serious hangover. Madeleine is a thinker, one amongst many in the Ivy League university. Her mind reads like a Norton Anthology, with enumerations of writers, novels, allusions, and morals. However, Madeleine is terribly hard on herself and her choices—she notes that she became an English major for the boring (and probably universally beautiful) reason that she liked to read—which offers readers a great look at the perils of vulnerability, of the danger in comparing yourself to others. She loves the romance of Victorian novels, particularly the marriage plot, in which characters work towards inevitable nuptials. It is that notion that motors her through the story as the ringleader in over-thinking relationships and the self.
This vein of introspection and self-doubt diffuses throughout the entire book. As we follow Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell Grammaticus throughout their journeys as budding adults in the archetypal “love triangle,” Eugenides never reins in the marriage (pun intended) of the lift of eagerness and the burden of responsibility. Relationships teeter, psyches deteriorate, but the book never seems to lose the affection for progress, for personal development. When responding to glaring concepts and paradigms with big, bold, capitalized letters, Eugenides never reads as puffed-up or especially esoteric, instead focusing on what one alluded philosopher deemed “the need to simplify.” However, this is a book for readers: the opening section alone will bombard the reader with a works cited page of texts, primarily those Victorian novels that Madeleine loves for their plot devices.
With that in mind, the book’s title should not so easily be dismissed as “easy.” Naturally, framing the story around such a heavily clichéd format in Victorian novels suggests that The Marriage Plot should either reinforce those traits, or completely rebel against them. Marriage Plot, essentially, does both of those things; indeed, the characters openly discuss the ethos of marriage and other relationships, but they don’t do so in the smug, confidence of youth, or the perils of familial obligation. Instead, the characters show how very convergent living in one’s 20s can be, what with all of the decisions that have to be made (or not), and the way one person’s choices are inseparably joined and influential towards others. However, that does not mean that they are immune to the marriage plot. Even horrified with the saccharine language of love, and the sterile relationships of their parents, young couples in the novel barely even fight against the flow.
However, Madeleine is no Elizabeth Bennett (I must admit that P&P is the only Austen I’ve read, which would surely annoy Madeleine). She has a great deal of agency, and she is much more enjoyable as the right angle in this New Wave love triangle than Mitchell and Leonard are as the acute ones. Eugenides digs deep with Madeleine and tackles some of the biggest gender discrepancies of the 1980s with her personal drive towards professorship, as well as her domestic hang-ups. I openly rooted for Madeleine throughout, even when I found her to be grossly selfish and, well, young. But I think the real reason why I, and perhaps most readers, would find her that way lies in how real she seems, even if most will never have the insular life of a liberal arts president’s daughter, or the privilege of an Ivy League education; humanizing Madeleine and the other characters taps into those empathetic reserves that maybe hide under the cynicism and aversion to “hokey” stories from the Victorian era (and now).
I am a fairly plodding, methodical reader, a 10:45 miler, when it comes to longer novels, but I tore through The Marriage Plot in two days. One of the sincerest credits I can give to a book–and I certainly can to this one–is when I not only read with my eyes and mind, but with my heart. Now, if that sounds hokey, maybe one should steer clear of The Marriage Plot. Or, better yet, maybe such a person needs it as a reminder of the parachute pants, Radiohead albums, and lump-in-the-throat optimism that comes with being a graduating twenty-something. Carpe diem (and whatever vices you can)!
Side Notes: A) If you want to figure out your personality type, check out this site: http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp. While not foolproof, it’s done wonders for me in understanding aspects of myself that the test eerily pinpointed, including the “better angels” of my nature. Yes, you are a snowflake, but you’re more akin to others than you might know. Check it out!
B) Here’s the Huffington Post page: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/15/myers-briggs-books_n_4098232.html. Some of them seem amazing, while others seem incredibly stupid, but, then again, I don’t align with all of those personalities.
Total Friends of Atticus Pages: 38, 366