The “marriage plot” refers to the central theme behind a lot of our favorite English novels by Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, the Brontë sisters, and their ilk–how young women had very few options in their lives and very little time available to them to secure their position in society. They relied on procuring a satisfactory marriage partner before they were deemed old maids.
In those novels, we often see the common trope of the girl dreaming of her perfect someone, thinking she’s met him, then having to overcome some obstacle, i.e. being tempted by another, before finding her happy ever after.
This particular book parallels that same method of storytelling but brings it into modern day life (1980s) when women do have more choices and are not necessarily reliant upon finding a “good catch” in order to achieve success and happiness in life.
We meet the three main protagonists in college, just learning about themselves and trying to figure out what they will do after graduation and trying to navigate the waters of romance as 20-somethings. This is a group of people who come from different backgrounds (one is from the Midwest, one from a more elite upbringing in New England, one from an abusive and dysfunctional home on the other side of the country) but are all now in the melting pot of an Ivy League school.
We see them as they branch off after graduation, two of the three in a relationship but dealing with the difficulties that come with mental illness; the third trying to find his way emotionally and spiritually by backpacking around the world, nursing his broken heart over his unrequited love.
The first half of this book came across as pretentious, not only due to the discussions between the well-educated and sometimes pompous students. That’s to be expected in college, when it’s important to people to impress their peers, especially in an institution of the caliber of Brown University. I’m picturing a campus full of John Greens arguing the theory of semiotics. It seemed like a possible affectation by the author himself to name-drop as many literary references as possible. I’m not joking. I was curious when I noticed how often it was happening. I counted 130 (one hundred thirty!) different references to books and authors (Derrida, Wharton, Eco, Barthes, Updike, Baudrillard, Proust, Faulkner…). I’m sure it would make a great list. There were so many I was thinking this book would make a great source for a reading challenge or should become a college drinking game. (NO. People would die.)
The second half of the book had less of that and more about the stories of their lives. Other than the serious issue of manic-depression, which was explained and covered very well, some of their difficulties could cause some eye rolling. They definitely had rich American white-people problems. Only those with wealthy families can spend weeks in places like Monaco when they are unemployed, or spend months finding themselves by roaming around third-world countries, as admirable as one particular character was in how he spent his time serving others.
That being said, I did care about these people and wanted them to find happiness. This ends with some unanswered questions which is disappointing, but I liked that it felt like real life. Real life is never cut and dried.