Jeffrey Eugenides is a writer who takes his time – a decade-between-novels sort of writer. And the investment of time has paid dividends. Between his eerily brilliant debut, The Virgin Suicides (1993), and the baggier Middlesex (2002) his books have sold more than three million copies. After Middlesex, one had a sense of an author developing his own line in high-concept fiction, not quite magical (or hysterical) realism, but something slightly at an angle to those modes, a kind of plausible expressionism. The death-driven Lisbon sisters of the first novel and Cal, the intersex narrator of the second, were unusual figures around whom the fabric of everyday life in mid-twentieth-century America could be distorted to reveal its underlying strangeness. What was most troubling about the suicidal girls was their normality; what was most interesting about Cal was the way the uncertainty of her (and later his) gender revealed the queerness of certainty itself.
The Marriage Plot is an odd successor to those two books. It begins, straightforwardly, as a campus novel. We meet Madeleine Hanna in the early 1980s on the morning of her graduation from Brown University. The narrative then snaps back to a hundred-page account of Madeleine’s undergraduate life: grappling with post-structuralist theory, adoring Jane Austen, attending the occasional party, and falling in and out of love. Soon enough, Madeleine’s love life resolves into a familiar triangle: on the one hand her friend Mitchell Grammaticus