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Ron Charles reviews “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides

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Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel, “The Marriage Plot,” starts down the aisle sparkling with humor like a modern version of “Pride and Prejudice,” but before reaching the altar, it veers into the romantic disappointments of “The Portrait of a Lady” and finally descends perilously close to “Ethan Frome.” Which is to say, this is a story about romance and novels — and the bright young people who read them. Or misread them.

For a long time now, we’ve been anxious about novels’ potential to delude us — or usually others. Thomas Jefferson warned that novel reading causes “a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life” (which didn’t stop him from carrying on some novel-worthy business with Sally Hemings). No less a pioneer of domestic fiction than Flaubert was hauled into court for his misleading portrait of an adulterer in “Madame Bovary.” And recall that Jane Austen, the grandmother of romantic comedy, wrote her first book, “Northanger Abbey,” about a young lady whose sensibilities were wildly distorted by reading too many gothic novels.

Eugenides’s love affair with fiction embraces all those contradictions: the novel’s potential to confuse and enlighten, to teach what love is really like even while confusing us with impossible ideals. For hundreds of years, literate people have drawn their impressions of sexual and social intercourse from plots about marriage, and now this sophisticated modern writer has produced a novel of his own about the persistence of “the marriage plot” in an unromantic world.

Eugenides is a nobly unprolific author for such a successful writer, which makes his body of work difficult to categorize. In 20 years, he has published just enough novels to form a triangle. His cool and creepy debut, “The Virgin Suicides” (1993), captured the collective voice of a neighborhood of boys who pine for the self-destructive Lisbon sisters. That carefully crafted novel had little in common with the voracious vision of “Middlesex” (2002), a story of cultural and sexual conflation that won the Pulitzer Prize. And now, just as surprisingly, he’s produced a romantic comedy wrapped around an academic satire that looks like the sprightly love child of Allegra Goodman and Jonathan Franzen.

On its most basic level, the plot of “The Marriage Plot” is so antique it could be wearing a corset: Madeleine Hanna is an attractive young woman of respectable means, the daughter of a college president and a matron of impeccable rectitude. We meet our bibliophilic heroine on the very day she graduates from Brown University with a degree in English and a large collection of classic novels that marks her as “Incurably Romantic.” For many readers, the opening shot of Madeleine’s bookshelf, described by a narrator of refined charm, will inspire love at first sight, which is exactly the kind of fantasy that has led Madeleine — hungover, panicked and tardy — so far astray.

She must choose between two strikingly different suitors who are desperately in love with her. And the fact that she thinks she must choose — at the ripe age of 22 — gives an indication of just how contaminated Madeleine has been by her study of 18th- and 19th-century fiction. On one side is Mitchell Grammaticus, an earnest young man engaged in a spiritual quest, who knows, as only a young man in love can, that he’s meant to spend his life with her. Competing with him for Madeleine’s affections is Leonard Bankhead, a sexy, manic-depressive genius from a poor family. Naturally, Mitchell doesn’t stand a chance.

The novel’s first section, a 127-page masterpiece that takes place on graduation day, twists and soars through one witty, erudite, perfectly choreographed sentence after another. As the chords of “Pomp and Circumstance” hang in the Providence air, Madeleine’s academic history at Brown unfolds, spurred on and redirected by new critical fads in the English department. If Eugenides’s parody of French literary theory sometimes feels as fresh as the Reagan administration, we can forgive him because he’s so in­cred­ibly good at it.

Despite playing with the arch tones of a Regency novel, this part of the story takes place on a college campus in the early 1980s, which means these young people go about their courtships in the full swing of the sexual revolution. But this young woman’s name is Madeleine Hanna, not Charlotte Simmons, and we’re at Brown, not Duke, so “The Marriage Plot,” while comically frank about the students’ sexual prowess, doesn’t subject us to the bedroom antics of Tom Wolfe’s last book, whose subtlety lay somewhere between a biology textbook and a gay porn film. Part of Eugenides’s appeal in these pages is the decorum he somehow manages to maintain and mock at the same time.

Post-graduation, the structure of the novel grows looser and the tone more erratic. Madeleine and both her beaux are knocked a little senseless by graduating from a top university in the midst of a moribund economy that has no use for them. (Show of hands: Can anyone relate to that?) In the novel’s most autobiographical section, Mitchell heads off to India to find himself: a search for meaning, for God, for some way to forget Madeleine. He’s endearing and earnest, and it’s nice to see a fiction writer who isn’t determined to torture a younger version of himself into humiliated disillusionment. Leonard, meanwhile, wins Madeleine’s heart and an impressive internship at a genetics research lab, even as his manic depression flares out of control. It’s a bleak picture of what it means to be in love with a mentally ill person, but his affliction appeals to Madeleine’s desire to play savior, a desire nurtured, of course, by some of her favorite novels.

These later sections are not as compelling, although the portrayal of life with a manic-depressive is distressing enough to shred anyone’s 19th-century illusions of romance. Eugenides is frighteningly perceptive about the challenges of mental illness, and much of what he writes here sounds like a more elegant version of the pharmacological satire Franzen delivered with such brio in “The Corrections.” A master of voice, from the perfectly calibrated voyeurs of “The Virgin Suicides” to the bifurcated consciousness of “Middlesex,” Eugenides delivers “The Marriage Plot” as a sympathetic omniscient narrator who can move unobtrusively into these three lovers’ minds, leaving just the faintest fingerprints of his light satire.

This is a story about being young and bright and lost, a story Americans have been telling since Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” Our exceptionally well-read but largely untested graduates still wonder: How should I live my life? What can I really believe in? Whom should I love? Literature has provided a wide range of answers to those questions — Lose Lady Brett! Give up on Daisy! Go with Team Edward! — but in the end, novels aren’t really very good guidebooks. Instead, they’re a chance to exercise our moral imagination, and this one provides an exceptionally witty and poignant workout.

Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT By Jeffrey Eugenides Farrar Straus Giroux. 406 pp. $28

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