The entire first paragraph of this best-seller is about books Madeleine Hanna has read, including “good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters” (3). Ah, finally, we’re in the hands of a real writer, one who won a Pulitzer, attended Brown and Stanford, and likes the Oxford comma. It’s about time.
We learn quickly that Madeleine has an ex-friend named Mitchell Grammaticus (awesome name, like Saxo). The reason for their “break-up” sounds petty, which means there’s hope for them (15). She also has a boyfriend whom we immediately like because, in Madeleine’s Semiotics seminar, where they first meet, Leonard is the only one who comments on a writer’s coldness in discussing his mother’s suicide. When a peer says, “better cold than sentimental,” Leonard has the intelligence and confidence to question that preference (28).
It’s 1982. As our protagonist prepares to graduate (the narrator says of graduation: “shows of disobedience were commonplace at graduation ceremonies and, therefore, as time-honored as the traditions they tried to subvert” 116), Eugenides takes us back in time to understand her college trajectory. Madeleine had “become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.” She is thus happy to become part of the exclusive “lit-crit” elite (studying Semiotics), but oh, the sacrifice. I remember reading that stuff. It isn’t what made me want to major in English (20). But this is hilarious: she’s drawn to it in part because Semiotics “smacked of revolution,” “dealt with provocative subjects,” and, even in the English Department, “where the concept of cool didn’t appear to obtain,” was clearly the cool way to study English (24-25). Professor Michael Zipperstein’s “conversion” from “close reading and biography-free” literary analysis to Roland Barthes’ deconstructionism leads to Madeleine experiencing romantic trouble as “the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love” (19). Eugenides has great fun at these people’s expense, describing them as “pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in” (21).
The course Madeleine takes junior year is called “The Marriage Plot: Selected Novels of Austen, Eliot, and James” (21). Her views of this new way of reading include this Eugenides gem: “When it came to letters and literature, Madeleine championed a virtue that had fallen out of esteem: namely, clarity” (42). I really enjoyed Eugendies’ well-articulated bias against the same texts I found annoyingly pretentious, unnecessarily verbose, and kind of dull. “(Could ‘the access to pluridimensionality and to a delinearized temporality’ really be a subject?)” (47) Similarly, he describes Madeleine’s joy in reading a novel after this garbage in this way: “There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world” (47).
Though she certainly makes some questionable choices, our protagonist is likeable and funny. Even when she’s drunk and miserable over a break-up, for instance, she worries about how clean the bath towels are (85). During a rather erotic scene, some key parts are described in terms of a picnic: “nibbling all the treats . . . the meaty drumsticks, . . . the wrinkly truffles, the salty spoonfuls of olive tapenade” (66). But the ending of that delicious feast is even more painful than the book Madeleine throws at Leonard’s head.
Eugenides takes us into the heads of several characters—Madeleine and her two primary men, Mitchell and Leonard—but at different times, and each view feels real and compelling. By “Pilgrims,” we’re following two pairs: Madeleine and her lithium-taking Leonard who may or may not be ready to commit to her rather than to be committed, and Mitchell and Larry, moving to India via Paris. Mitchell is so thoughtful and articulate and insightful that his professor wants to get him a full scholarship to a renowned divinity school of his choosing (99). Mitchell comes to understand religious feelings as arising, not “from going to church or reading the Bible but from the most private interior experiences” (93). A friend of Leonard’s who happens to be a pysch major cautions Madeleine that “people don’t save other people. People save themselves” (124). It sounds so simple, but many people find the prospect of saving someone else appealing.
The story then goes back in time and after graduation and tells us the stories of the other parts of the lives of Leonard, Mitchell, and Madeleine. Such an interesting structure: first Maddy, then Mitchell, Mitchell being jealous of Leonard, Catholicism, then Leonard, mentions of Islam, then Leonard being jealous of Mitchell, then Quakers, then Mitchell and Leonard sharing religious experience (that happens first, but we don’t learn about it until later), then Leonard using religion to change his status. It is a plot in which each piece is carefully interwoven with other pieces, and the end, though it didn’t give me the Austen resolution for which I always hope, did feel right for this story. An engaging story, both emotionally and intellectually.