Born in Michigan, educated at Brown and Stanford, and now teaching at Princeton, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides opens his just-published third novel, The Marriage Plot, with daylight rising over the smokestacks of the old Narragansett Electric plant in downtown Providence.
It is Commencement Day, June 1982. The three Brown undergraduates at the center of the story are poised to exit the Ivied gates. And the sun of that morning, Eugenides writes, shines brighter than the sun on the university's seal: "The founders of the university, in their Baptist pessimism, had chosen to depict the light of knowledge enshrouded by clouds, indicating that ignorance had not yet been dispelled from the human realm."
Here, the sun fights through the clouds to send "down splintered beams of light"; human folly, on this day at least, goes unrecognized.
The Marriage Plot, described by one critic as the best campus novel since Tom Wolfe's misguided I Am Charlotte Simmons, explores the treacherous gap between college theory and post-graduation reality.
The main characters are classic campus types: the lovely semiotics-obsessed Madeleine Hanna; her tragically unstable boyfriend Leonard Bankhead (who bears an uncomfortable resemblance to David Foster Wallace); and another love interest, the abstract and sensitive Mitchell Grammaticus. The trio imagines a benevolent world that will nurture its ambitions: romantic for Hanna, scientific for Bankhead, and religious for Grammaticus.
The sheltered Providence of their experience encourages that rosy view: it "was a corrupt town, crime-ridden and mob-controlled, but up on College Hill this was hard to see. The sketchy downtown and dying or dead textile mills lay below, in the grim distance, here the narrow streets, many of them cobblestone . . . streets with names like Prospect, Benevolent, Hope, and Meeting, all of them feeding into the arborous campus at the top."
Sense of place is one of Eugenides's strong suits. The enclosed, claustrophobic setting of his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides (1993), examines the soft-cage properties of suburban existence. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex (2002) explores the fractured history of Detroit, Eugenides's hometown, as metaphor for the hermaphrodite protagonist's feelings of internal division.
The Providence of Marriage Plot is well past its glory days. But rather than wallowing in a faded, post-industrialist languor, the city treasures the vibrancy that remains and finds a way to muddle through.
Likewise, the three protagonists in Marriage Plot face down damage — romantic catastrophes for Hanna and Grammaticus, mental illness for Bankhead — and learn how to cope. They build character upon stinging heartbreak.
"Some cities have fallen into ruin and some are built upon ruins," Eugenides writes, "but others contain their own ruins while still growing," At this point in the novel, Bankhead has journeyed to Calcutta to pursue his religious ambitions, but the phrase could just as easily describe the Providence of the novel — a city unbroken by post-industrialist struggle and still littered with beaming landmarks.