You wouldn’t want to be a girl in a Jeffrey Eugenides novel. Never can there be doubt about the fate of the five sisters in his debut, The Virgin Suicides. The narrator of Middlesex, his Pulitzer-winning follow-up, is raised as a daughter but runs away at age 14 to live as a man. Madeleine Hanna, a 22-year-old Ivy Leaguer and the female lead in The Marriage Plot, seems, by contrast, relatively unscathed by her experience of her teenage years in Cold War-era suburbia. Yet it’s no surprise when she writes a term paper on literature and “the (Strictly Limited) Sphere of the Feminine”, because that sounds a lot like Eugenides’ own theme. Faced with becoming women, his girls – stared at, drooled over, prodded and poked – would rather opt out.
It’s a worrying idea, but Eugenides likes to make us laugh – those brackets in Madeleine’s essay title – which is why his new novel, only his third since 1993, arrives in the guise of a mild romantic comedy. It traces the post-university reverberations of an on-campus love triangle over a three-year stretch in the Eighties. There is a recession, and a boom in a new academic discipline known as Theory. “Derrida is my absolute god!,” says Madeleine’s roommate. Madeleine, who prefers Daniel Deronda, worries about how she’d pronounce Roland Barthes’ surname if asked to speak in her semiotics seminar. The nub of this well-worn satire is obvious: maybe these kids are wasting their time, but unemployment’s at 10 per cent and rising, so what else can they do?
Semiotics 211 is where Madeleine meets manic biology student Leonard Bankhead. Excited corners of the internet will tell you that tobacco-chewing, bandanna-clad, omnivorously-read Leonard is an avatar of David Foster Wallace. You need not be a crank to credit the notion – already a sharp-eyed blogger has shown that the novel lifts at least one line of speech from a mid-Nineties newspaper profile of Wallace – but perhaps only a mystic could work out why Eugenides would do such a thing, or what difference it makes.
Madeleine doesn’t know Leonard is ill until graduation day – when the novel begins – by which time they’ve split up, because he refuses to say “I love you” (he shows her what Barthes says about the phrase). The snub is forgotten when she discovers that he’s been admitted to hospital after a breakdown. More or less his helpmate, she follows him, without a job of her own, to the coastal apartment that is the perk of Leonard’s year-long medical research fellowship, where they conduct a brief, intense affair, which culminates in a spectacular wipeout on their honeymoon in Monte Carlo.
On the other side of the love triangle is a theology major, Mitchell, who has the book’s two funniest lines (he just happens to be Detroit-born of Greek descent, like Eugenides). He lusts after Madeleine from afar, having once blown his chance to make a move at a Thanksgiving sleepover. She claims not to fancy him, but strings him along once in a while. The do-you-don’t-you business thickens with an exchange of letters during his gap-year quest for enlightenment in Calcutta. Madeleine’s monied parents adore Mitchell. They’re not so keen on Leonard, particularly once their spiteful elder daughter, Ally, saddled with a baby and a bad match of her own, blabs about the pills left lying around in the Bankhead bathroom.
Because Eugenides writes well, most of this is great fun to read about, although The Marriage Plot is more reined-in than his previous books. High literary ostentation marks both The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex: a phrase in one about “the aureolae of street lights” reappears in the other (“yellow globes of streetlamps glow, aureoled in the mist”). Nothing is aureoled in The Marriage Plot. In Middlesex, “epic” means Homer; here it means a good house party.