Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Marriage Plot



I've just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel, The Marriage Plot. I haven’t read his earlier feted books, Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, and although this latest offering is less outlandish in its subject matter (to the disappointment of some reviewers), it will probably have strong resonances for anyone studying or teaching at Oxford.

The Marriage Plot is simply an exploration of the experiences of three undergraduates at the Ivy League Brown University, respectively majoring in English literature, Religious Studies and Biology. It covers two years of their lives – their final year at university, and the first year out in the big bad world in America, France and Calcutta in early 1980s. For me, one of book’s most impressive achievements is the way it explores (or: reminds you of) what is like to be in your final year at an elite university, in an environment which is both intellectually and emotionally intense. The protagonists Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard are caught up in friendship networks which are at times hugely supportive, and at times claustrophobic and judgemental; they are making epic decisions about their personal relationships which may shape the rest of their lives, and they’re under enormous pressure to decide where to go after Brown, and to put those plans for future success in motion before they even write their final papers. And in the midst of all this, they are not only hugely intellectually engaged with their studies (carrying their Derrida and Foucault around with them like Bibles), but challenged by them, trying to apply the electrifying ideas they are exposed to in the classroom to their own lives, attempting to adjust as their intellectual sense of the wider world around them shifts day by day. If Donna Tartt’s thriller The Secret History evoked life in a small Liberal Arts college splendidly, Marriage Plot is in a different league.

I have no idea how far this story of the early 1980s, of bright graduates fleeing abroad to escape an American recession, would chime with our own students here. But I do think that for Oxford tutors, with all our pedagogic and pastoral responsibilities, this book should be highly recommended reading – a bracing fictional reminder not only of how big and deep our undergraduates' lives are outside the tutorial or classroom, but also of the enormous impact that the ideas we introduce students to can have after they have left the room, whether they agree with them or not.

4 comments:

  1. Esta novela de Jeffrey Eugenides es muy buena, se las recomiendo a todos los lectores y especialmente a los fanaticos de esta escritora, la verdad es el primer libro que leo de ella y me gusto muchisimo, cuando comence a leerlo no podia parar, he incluso muchas veces deje de estudiar para seguir leyendo la novela jaja. Bueno un saludo grande a todos los que les gusta la lectura.
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  2. This novel by Jeffrey Eugenides is very good, I recommend them to all readers and especially the fans of this writer, the truth is the first book I read and I liked it a lot, when I started reading it I could not stop, I even often leave school to continue reading the novel haha. Well a big salute to all who love reading.
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  3. While I haven't read this book (only your synopsis-which has enticed me) I totally relate to this story. I just graduated from an American university, and decided that going to graduate school was a better option than struggling to get a job in this economic climate. So, this fall I'll arrive at Exeter to get a masters in History- and (hopefully) ride out this economy.

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  4. I purchased this book because I loved middlesex and figured I'd give this one a try. i enjoyed all of the characters and the way the author takes you through each life story. kept me captivated the entire read - didn't want to put it down!
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