The trouble with love triangles is, somebody almost always has to lose. This is a defect in real life, so why shouldn't it be a problem in fiction too? The endings of Joe Orton's "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" and James L. Brooks' "Broadcast News" each got around this challenge in innovative ways, but most writers wind up contenting themselves with the usual solution. They pick a winner, then go back and cover their tracks to gin up suspense.
"The Marriage Plot," Jeffrey Eugenides' smart and delightful first novel since the astounding "Middlesex" (2002) and "The Virgin Suicides" (1993) before it, comes at the triangle challenge from a slightly different angle.
The hypotenuse and main character — if only because we expect that the ultimate choice will rest with her — is Madeleine Hanna, a beautiful, sensible English major at Eugenides' alma mater, Brown University, about to graduate with his very class, 1983. Probably there's a Hitchcock-style author cameo tucked in somewhere too. I missed it amid all the terrific period detail of the book's extended opening set piece, which zooms around that commencement day in Providence, R.I., with the supple mastery of a crane shot.
Madeleine is having a rough graduation morning, what with a stain that she tantalizingly doesn't want to think about on the dress she woke up in, the arrival of her perhaps a tad exaggeratedly blue-blooded Mummy and Daddy, and her lingering breakup with Leonard Bankhead.
Leonard is — no buts about it — a bad boy. If the roles were reversed, we might call him the femme fatale or, not to put too fine a point on it, the blonde. He also suffers from manic depression, and if there's a funnier, sadder, more accurate portrait of that notorious mixed blessing, beats me what it is:
"As Leonard strode along, thoughts stacked up in his head like air traffic over Logan Airport to the northwest. There were one or two jumbo jets full of Big Ideas, a fleet of 707s laden with the cargo of sensual impressions (the color of the sky, the smell of the sea), as well as Learjets carrying rich solitary impulses that wished to travel incognito. All these planes requested permission to land simultaneously. ...
"Tracking developments on his radar screen, Leonard could bring each plane in on schedule while trading a salty remark with the controller in the next seat and eating a sandwich, making everything look easy. All part of the job."
Would that lithium — the mood-stabilizing chemical element also indispensable to the first atom bomb, many a zero-emission car battery and, apparently, the original recipe for 7-Up — could nail its nemesis as perfectly as the author does right here.
The third leg of this Eugenides triangle is Mitchell Grammaticus, who shares both his creator's heritage, Greek-American, and his hometown of Detroit. Mitchell has carried a big torch for Madeleine practically since freshman orientation.
Will Mitchell find God, working alongside Mother Teresa in Calcutta after graduation? Can Leonard self-medicate his way to an even keel? And does Madeleine's enraptured love of great Victorian novels have any place in an academy newly besotted with secondhand French literary theory? Eugenides ties together these subplots and his eponymous marriage plot with aplomb, all the while playing even the least trusting reader like a lyre.
The questing Mitchell's college major is religious studies, compared with virile Leonard's biology and reserved Madeleine's English. But they're all massively well-read and verbal. This may prove a liability for readers who prefer their character's epiphanies less frequent, their dilemmas less explicitly stated. But, well, tough.
"The Marriage Plot" is great serious romantic fun. It's not as ambitious as "Middlesex," and lacks the grand, chewy spectacle of that book's unforgettable scenes of race rioting in Detroit and the sack of Smyrna. But we can fairly hope it occupies a similar place in Eugenides' gathering shelf as the novelist David Mitchell's deeply humane "Black Swan Green" after his phenomenal "Cloud Atlas": the sweet, cleansing, semi-autobiographical cloudburst after the juggernaut gone by.
Plus, in a novel preoccupied with its formal Victorian precursors, "The Marriage Plot" ultimately pulls a switcheroo as deft as anything in Orton or Brooks. At the expense of a little suspense along the way, Eugenides mutes our curiosity about the outcome by letting us suspect we already know how his plot's going to come out. Then, just as we think exquisitely delayed gratification is right around the corner, Eugenides springs one last lovely surprise.
Trust a Greek to reinvent the triangle.
David Kipen served nearly five years as the National Endowment for the Arts director of literature, introduced this year's reissues of the Federal Writers Project guides to Los Angeles and San Francisco, and recently established a lending library/used bookshop, Libros Schmibros, in Los Angeles.
'The Marriage Plot'
By Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pages, $28
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