The first thing we know about Madeleine Hanna is her library. “To start with, look at all the books,” Jeffrey Eugenides suggests of his heroine, and proceeds with a tracking shot of her shelves: “A lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot and the redoubtable Brontë sisters… the Colette novels she read on the sly… the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade…” Madeleine Hanna is an English major at Ivy League Brown University in 1982. Her thesis is concerned with “the marriage plot” as it existed in the 19th-century novel and the way, with marriage having lost its gravitas in her era of quickie divorces and prenups, the novel itself has been diminished. Much as Madeleine may believe this thesis as a critic, however, as a 20-year-old woman there is much about her life that seems Victorian. She is, cliche of cliches, caught in a love triangle herself, torn between two fellow undergraduates: the charismatic and depressive Leonard Bankhead on the one hand and the studious and spiritual Mitchell Grammaticus on the other. Her heart shouts Leonard (most of the time); her head and her Waspish parents murmur Mitchell.
As well as locating the style of Madeleine's dilemma, Eugenides's opening tracking shot of those library shelves is also a nudge to the reader: this is the territory we are in. And here is the challenge he sets himself: to breathe new life into the redundant marriage plot; to create a properly absorbing love triangle, not only as pastiche or irony, but as something as full of life as those books on Madeleine's shelf. In the 400-odd pages that follow he mostly succeeds in this aspiration, both knowingly and brilliantly. This is Eugenides's third novel. It is 18 years since the precocious and perfectly formed The Virgin Suicides marked him out as a writer who would always be required reading. In between times, the fabulous family saga Middlesex, which, along the way, told of the unlikely coming of age of a hermaphrodite in Michigan, became a huge bestseller and Pulitzer prize-winner, without ever seeming entirely coherent.