Madeleine Hanna is on her way to graduation at Brown University, hung over and humiliated by her behavior the previous night and unsure of what she is going to do with her newly minted English degree. She is out-of-sync with the discipline in the early 1980s--she loves Regency and Victorian novels that focus on the interplay between success, marriage, and money. But her department colleagues are wrapped up in Derrida, semiotics, and the need to "stop thinking about books as being about things." Madeleine had planned to move to Cape Cod with her boyfriend Leonard, a philosophy and biology major she met in a Semiotics class. But they have broken up, and she is at loose ends.
Then, on her way to join the procession of graduates, Madeleine runs into a friend of Leonard's, who informs her he is in the psych ward of a local hospital. She rushes to the hospital to provide succor to Leonard, who it turns out is manic-depressive and had stopped taking his medication after the break-up. The two reunite and eventually do move to Cape Cod, where both struggle, albeit for different reasons.
Meanwhile, Mitchell Grammaticus, a friend of Madeleine's who harbors an unrequited love for her, is taking a post-graduation world tour, trying to determine whether his religious studies degree can be the basis for a religious vocation. Mitchell travels around Europe and India, volunteering with Mother Teresa while obsessing about his relationship with Madeleine.
While reading the first section of the book, I thought it was going to be about literary theory and academic infighting; while I am unfamiliar with many of the debates being examined, I was intrigued. But then The Marriage Plot turns into the story of what it is like to be or live with someone with bipolar disorder and a coming-of-age story--with Mitchell, Madeleine, and Leonard attempting different paths for entering adulthood. As such, it is interesting enough but not as novel as I expected a Eugenides novel to be (having read Middlesex).
Madeleine had a feeling that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature. They wanted to demote the author. They wanted a book, that hard-won transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers.