|(clockwise from top left) my copy of The Marriage Plot; a sweet line from the book; the back cover of my copy; the former owner's marginalia|
The Marriage Plot chronicles the college and post-graduate lives of the protagonists told in alternating perspectives: the books they read ; their romantic partners; and their progress through the marriage plot of their lives. In the novel, Mitchell Grammaticus is a thoughtful all-Greek-American student at Brown. He is sincerely searching for wisdom "with a capital W" in majoring in religious studies. He's a masterly student, basically guaranteed by his professor admission to his choice from Harvard, Yale or Princeton's divinity schools, but he's still the kid from the Midwest, rhapsodizing over exotic ice cream flavors like rum raisin.
On the other hand, Leonard Bankhead's lousy childhood and mental health set a cynical edge to his confidence, but just like Mitchell he too ponders the big questions in life, though instead of religious studies philosophy is his method of inquiry, which leads him to semiotics class and to Madeleine Hanna for whom he falls in love, also just like Mitchell does.
In Mitchell’s case, not only is he in love with Madeleine, he is convinced he will marry her. This bit of information completely detoured my reading and evaluation of the entire novel.
See, in a spell of post-holiday blues, I reread Curtis Sittenfeld’s Man of My Dreams to revive any feeling left inside of me. The central premise of Man of My Dreams is that Hannah Gavener is in love with Henry, her cousin Fig’s college boyfriend, and is convinced that one day, she will in fact marry him—just like Mitchell with Madeleine. There are other similarities between the two novels: two coming of age novels; two campus and post-grad settings, and importantly, two protagonists who believe themselves destined for persons who don’t quite share their views. The comparison to me is inescapable. Early in both novels, Mitchell and Hannah envisioned being married to and having a family with their respective romantic interests: Mitchell while playing Scrabble with Madeleine and her parents, while Hannah during a long drive to Cape Cod with Henry. This feeling directs both the novels.
The very idea behind The Marriage Plot to me is just a more literary refinement of Man of My Dreams. As opposed to celebrity gossip and Hannah’s family members’ love lives, The Marriage Plot uses Austen, Eliot and the Brontes as a template for romantic relationships for Mitchell, Madeleine and Leonard to follow, or not to follow. Even characters’ names are similar: Hannah Gavener and Madeleine Hanna.
More substantially, both Hannah and Mitchell go through their pursuit of love as a wholly transformative process. Hannah has to overcome the effect of her parents’ bad marriage, her own less than satisfactory relationships with them and quite a bunch of other people and her very understanding and beliefs about human relationships if she wants to be in love. Mitchell has more of a religious quest alongside his romantic pursuit. He goes to catechism, reads books by saints and volunteers at Mother Teresa’s home for the sick in India. Even though Mitchell’s appears more serious, he actually gets to have fun. He travels the world with his best friend Larry, whereas Hannah’s life is eventless except for a lot of painful moments. Hannah seemed alone in the world except maybe for Fig her cousin who does love her but could treat her more carefully. Basically, Hannah comes across tortured whereas Mitchell had a degree of youthful euphoria that comes from love even when unreturned.
In both cases, youth was portrayed honestly. There’s a lot of self-doubt and insecurity wondering where we stand in relationships, but at the same time the young (including me?) can be so unquestionably sure about their feelings. There’s the moodiness, a kind of receptivity to every emotional stimuli. There are also the great friendships. There’s a part where Mitchell in spite of his anger at Larry for duping him and ruining their party quickly forgives him because “Larry was his best friend, they were going to India together and Mitchell had no choice.” Fig could put more effort in making Hannah comfortable but Fig accepts Hannah and doesn’t judge her (even though Hannah might believe otherwise). The petty and significant are all jumbled up and thrown at the young all together and teasing out what matters—be it your pride, the love of your life or long-held beliefs—and what to throw out makes a great coming of age novel. There are many ways to read The Marriage Plot, there are after all two more major characters and the thesis of the marriage plot. In the end, I loved how both novels ended and I loved how both authors treated their characters with so evident care. Being young is painful and exhausting and I’m glad the characters got their due.