The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: An Accurate Depiction of Bipolar Disorder

December 25, 2012

Many depictions of bipolar disorder have appeared in books and films, but few (in my opinion) accurately portray the ups and downs of bipolar I disorder. Instead, they tend to capitalize on Hollywood-style depictions that may be dramatic, funny or even tear-jerking, but rarely capture the pain caused by the illness for the sufferer or his or her family members, or the difficult decisions that have to be made.

A notable exception is the novel “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux publishers, 2011). This is the story of three Brown University students in the year following their college graduation. Leonard, one of the novel’s main characters, cycles from mania to hypomania to depression and back several times, and the descriptions of these different states are dead-on. What’s more, Eugenides shows us bipolar disorder through the eyes of a spouse, Madeleine, who is well-meaning and loves Leonard deeply, but is way out of her league in dealing with his disorder.

More generally, the novel speaks to the process of developing an identity after college, and the ways in which events during childhood and adolescence come to call at various life stages. We see the development of Leonard’s disorder once it starts in adolescence, how it goes underground from time to time, and how it reemerges when least expected.

Far from being didactic, the book is engaging and a great read. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the experience of bipolar disorder from the person’s and the caregiver’s viewpoints.

David J. Miklowitz, Ph.D.