Jeffrey Eugenides's 'The Marriage Plot'

The Marriage Plot
Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28, 406 pp.

In a recent New York Times “Conversation” feature, the writers Jeffrey Eugenides and Colm Toibin talked about the novel. Both agreed that it was still a good thing, still had plenty of life in it, indeed was still perhaps the best way (in Eugenides’ words) to describe human consciousness or “reality.” Both novelists are realist in their inclinations, and Eugenides especially spoke in very old-fashioned terms about how, in his new novel The Marriage Plot, he wanted his characters to “come to the fore,” to feel “truer” than they had in his previous two novels, The Virgin Suicides (1993) and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Middlesex (2003).

Neither of Eugenides’ previous novels seems to me satisfactory, even though full of cleverness and fun. In each case the defect is one of “realism,” or the lack of it. The Virgin Suicides is the story of five daughters in the Lisbon family who made suicide “familiar” by committing it. The “we” who narrate the story do a lot of speculating about how and why these events happened; but they seem not to share this reader’s response, who didn’t believe the story for a minute. Middlesex, which goes on for a couple of hundred pages longer than necessary, is about a protagonist of Greek origin, living in Detroit, who finds her/himself to be, of all things, a hermaphrodite. Much comic embarrassment is made out of this fact. But as with The Virgin Suicides, I had trouble—as students...

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About the Author

William H. Pritchard is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English at Amherst College. He is the author of Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews (University of Massachusetts Press) among others.