Characters in the latest novel from Jeffrey Eugenides find themselves shaped by an age where love is always suspect, writes David Mattin
Part way through writing Middlesex - surely one of the best-known literary novels of the past 20 years - Jeffrey Eugenides gave up in despair. He turned instead to another story, about a rich family that holds a party for debutantes. Where Eugenides had been stuck fast on Middlesex, here the pages multiplied: 150 of them in a few easy weeks. Soon enough, though, Eugenides began to feel guilt over this authorial infidelity, and returned to the book he had been writing. And it's good that he did: Middlesex, published in 2002, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, sell more than three million copies, and earn Eugenides a place among the most important American novelists of his generation.
Those 150 pages, though, were not wasted. They formed the kernel of The Marriage Plot. Ten years in creation, it's one of the most anticipated fiction releases of recent years.
"When I finished Middlesex, I was left with the 150 pages of this new book," Eugenides remembers. "The story had lots of people coming together for a party, and there were two young people called Madeleine and Mitchell.
"I was writing a section about Madeleine, and I wrote this sentence: 'Madeleine's love troubles began when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.' And with that sentence somehow the whole tone of the novel changed, it seemed more contemporary, and I just kept writing her chapter."
The Marriage Plot was born. The novel tells the story of the romantic entanglement of three college students; Madeleine falls in love with the manic-depressive Leonard, who she first encounters in her Semiotics 211 class. Meanwhile, Mitchell pines after the unavailable Madeleine, and takes himself off to Europe in an attempt to forget about her. All this happens at Brown University in the mid-1980s, a time when post-structuralist literary theory was sweeping campuses across the US. This, of course, allows Eugenides some post-structuralism of his own: Madeleine reads Barthes' Lovers Discourse in an attempt to understand whether she is really in love with Leonard. A college professor argues that the novel reached its apogee with the "marriage plots" of the 19-century - Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina - and has never recovered from the damage wrought on such plots by the 1960s. In short, The Marriage Plot is a novel about love that plays with the very idea of novels about love. If all that sounds rather tricksy, fear not: this book delivers great bowls full of the conventional pleasures: deep, complex characters, narrative tension, emotional involvement. No wonder the US publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux thought it worthwhile to announce publication with a billboard over New York's Times Square.
Eugenides says it was never his intention to write a post-structuralist, "problem of meaning" novel.
"I wanted to capture that feeling of being in love, and this is what being in love is like now," he says. "The idea of being in love is shadowed with all these theoretical, existential doubts that we've picked up by reading the post-structuralists.
"It's as though the doubt that has for a long time plagued religious faith is now a part of romance, too: people still fall in love, but they're not quite sure if they should believe it. Madeleine has grown up with this expectation of finding the perfect person, but then she starts to call that idea into question."
But surely there are some formal ideas here, too? Isn't Eugenides playing with the postmodernist idea that texts, including novels, are always really about other texts?
"I've been influenced by the postmodernists, but I've always resisted the idea that texts can't mean anything about the world. People might say this is a novel about books, but really it's a novel about people who are heavily influenced by what they read, and play that out in their own lives. That is what I remember it was like to be 22.