PRINCETON, N.J. — As an undergraduate at Brown University, Jeffrey Eugenides never imagined he would be living like this.
The 51-year-old author is a Pulitzer Prize winner, Oprah Winfrey book club pick and author of one of this fall’s most anticipated novels, “The Marriage Plot,” the rare book to get a billboard advertisement in Times Square. A husband and father and faculty member at Princeton University, he lives in a Tudor house overlooking white pines, hemlocks and a swimming pool.
But he’s also an artist and a “worried soul” and he wonders if his luck will hold up.
“What if things don’t work out? What if one’s moment in the sun is brief?” he says, seated on the back deck of his house during a recent afternoon interview. “My father was a successful businessman who lost a lot of his wealth at the end of his life. And my grandfather was a successful immigrant who lost a lot of his wealth at the end of his life. I feel like there’s a Eugenides curse, so I’m trying to be prudent and offset these possibilities.”
Prudence means keeping a position at Princeton even though he probably didn’t need the money, thanks to his million-selling “Middlesex.” Meanwhile, the artist looked back to his college years and wrote “The Marriage Plot,” a self-consciously literary story set at Brown in the early 1980s that follows the choices of three high-minded seniors: Madeleine Hanna, bookish, beautiful and insecure; the brilliant but unstable Leonard Bankhead; and the truth-seeking, romantic Mitchell Grammaticus.
The ideal character has a life of its own, and Madeleine stopped taking orders from the author pretty much from conception. Mr. Eugenides had been working on a novel about a family throwing a debutante party when a brief interlude about a college student’s return became a narrative of its own. The student was Madeleine, and the party was set aside.
“The Marriage Plot” is a three-way affair in the tradition of Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady” and Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” and an updating of such classic 19th-century stories of entrapped women as “Madame Bovary” and “Anna Karenina.” Madeleine has the luck to be born when she’s free to decide which man, if any, she’ll end up with. Her troubles are not from thwarted desire but from not knowing what her desires are.
“I don’t usually start with the idea that I’m going to write a novel trying to reinvent or play with the marriage plot in a modern context,” Mr. Eugenides says. “I just started writing about this girl in college and her romantic entanglements, her love of books and … little by little it worked its way in. It seemed to be intrinsic to the story. It took me a while to work that in and use it as a governing metaphor for the whole story.”
Mr. Eugenides is a dependably unhurried writer, taking nine years to finish “Middlesex” and another nine to turn in “The Marriage Plot.” He might still be working on it if his editor and publisher at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Jonathan Galassi, hadn’t decided enough was enough. The author says Mr. Galassi “lets me go, and at the end, he cracks the whip.” Mr. Galassi recalls a gentler resolution.
“I did urge him to come to closure with it,” Mr. Galassi says. “I reminded him that it takes a long time to publish a book.”
Mr. Eugenides says he has long been conflicted between the modernist desire to experiment and an old-fashioned comfort with character and plot, what Madeleine calls the guilty pleasure of one sentence following “logically from the sentence before.” He is a risk taker and entertainer, with an audience willing to play along. “The Virgin Suicides,” later adapted into a Sofia Coppola film of the same name, used a first-person-plural narrative for its story of a family’s downfall in 1970s suburban Detroit. “Middlesex” is a multigenerational epic narrated by a hermaphrodite - a human with male and female sexual organs - that appealed both to Miss Winfrey and to Pulitzer judges.
“The Marriage Plot” is a narrative about narratives, its title lifted from a seminar Madeleine takes in junior year about marriage and 19th-century fiction. We know the characters in Mr. Eugenides‘ novel in part from what they read, so that, for example, Madeleine learns about love in part from Roland Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse.”
“Here was a book addressed to lovers, a book about being in love that contained the word love in just about every sentence,” Mr. Eugenides writes. “And, oh, how she loved it!”
Mr. Eugenides, a mortgage banker’s son, was born in Detroit in 1960 and grew up in suburban Grosse Pointe, Mich. By high school, he knew he wanted to write and pursued his calling with professional diligence. He read as much as possible and at Brown lobbied to get into the class of a favored professor, novelist John Hawkes, by visiting his office and quoting from one of his books.
Hawkes “didn’t expect everyone to write experimental fiction, at all,” says fellow author and Brown alumnus Rick Moody. “And to my recollection, Jeff was not writing terribly experimental work then. It was not ordinary kitchen-sink realism, but it was pretty linear and there were characters and emotions and so on.”