His operatic debut, “The Virgin Suicides,” depicted the deaths of five pretty sisters and the fallout on the boys who worshipped them. His Pulitzer Prize-winning second novel, “Middlesex,” chronicled the bumpy coming of age of a narrator who happens to be a hermaphrodite. And his new novel, “The Marriage Plot,” charts the emotional peregrinations of three slightly older characters, as they navigate their way through college and the uncertainties of the real world after graduating in 1982.
This novel’s bright, spirited heroine, Madeleine, is an English major at Brown University who, in the heyday of semiotics and deconstruction, is writing her honors thesis on “the marriage plot” — that is, the traditional mating dance, as performed in the novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James. Mr. Eugenides’s own moving but long-winded book turns out to be a sort of modern-day variation on those old-fashioned narratives, meant, it would seem, to demonstrate that sexual equality and divorce haven’t killed the novel, as one of Madeleine’s pompous professors contends.
“The Marriage Plot” revolves around a love triangle that develops among Madeleine and two men — the charismatic Leonard and the adoring Mitchell — and it turns out to be a lot less dramatic and a lot less daring than the author’s earlier novels. Unlike the manic-depressive Leonard, who veers between high-wire ups and brooding downs, this novel very much occupies the safe middle ground; there is nothing very bravura about it, though Mr. Eugenides’s ability to make us care about Madeleine’s romantic travails and at least one of her suitors results in a story that steadily gains in emotional intensity and amplitude as it rumbles along.
Whereas his earlier novels were laden with mythic overtones and metaphors, “The Marriage Plot” is methodically anchored in the recognizable concerns of bright, self-conscious Ivy League kids coping with worries about grades and grad school and their fledgling careers. Whereas “Middlesex” evoked the 1960s and ’70s through its idiosyncratic narrator’s memories, this novel carefully uses cultural references to conjure the 1980s, that era when hipsters wore Fiorucci cowboy boots and well-to-do parents outfitted their cosseted offspring with Trinitron TVs and Saab convertibles.
As depicted by Mr. Eugenides the ’80s were not so different from today: a recession greeted newly minted college graduates, jobs were hard to come by, and moving back home to live with parents was a popular fallback option. There were differences too, of course: Prince and Annie Lennox played on the soundtrack of students’ lives; people sent letters (written on typewriters, no less) not e-mails; and deconstruction was the trendy doctrine ascendant in university English departments.
Early portions of the novel that trace Madeleine’s perplexed reactions to the chilly, relativistic and self-congratulatory ethos of semiotics and radical feminism can be as funny as David Lodge’s famous sendups of academia, but Mr. Eugenides has a way of belaboring his points, and the reader soon begins to feel as claustrophobic as Madeleine is suffering through classes about Derrida and Barthes and Baudrillard. When the author turns from campus politics to the romantic geometry of the Madeleine-Leonard-Mitchell triangle, the narrative gears really engage.
Madeleine, we learn, is a pretty, privileged preppie, good at tennis and accustomed to plenty of male attention. She has a whole set of rules about what sort of men she will date: no nervous guys, no guys who have problems with their own parents, no guys who don’t ask her out first.
Leonard, needless to say, breaks all these rules, and Madeleine soon realizes she’s deeply, madly in love — or at least very smitten: “It was as if, before she’d met him, her blood had circulated grayly around her body, and now it was all oxygenated and red.” For someone so used to being in control, it’s a thrilling, disorienting and frightening experience, heightened further when Madeleine realizes that Leonard’s depression is not a passing mood but a serious and chronic condition that could well sabotage their relationship.