The Marriage Plot: A Novel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
416 pp., 28.00
Naomi Schaefer Riley
The Marriage Plot
If Mitchell is surprised by this discovery, the reader is even more startled to find a fashionable American writer taking faith so seriously in a novel. This strand of The Marriage Plot is the most interesting aspect of the book, yet the import of it isn't entirely clear.
Mitchell admits to Richter that his quest for religious understanding has been a personal one, not just an intellectual one, and that the previous summer he had given himself a reading list, which included Thomas Merton and Meister Eckhart. And what a personal quest it is. Mitchell's description of writing that final exam is what many professors dream a student will do at the end of an inspiring course or, for that matter, an inspiring college education.
He wasn't answering the questions to get a grade on a test. He was trying to diagnose the predicament he felt himself to be in. And not just his predicament either, but that of everyone he knew. It was an odd feeling. He kept writing the names of Heidegger and Tillich but he was thinking about himself and his friends. Everyone he knew was convinced that religion was a sham and God a fiction. But his friends' replacements for religion didn't look too impressive. No one had an answer for the riddle of existence …. As he responded to the essay questions, Mitchell kept bending his answers toward their practical application. He wanted to know why he was here and how to live.
Mitchell seems to have achieved these depths despite his professors and his fellow students, not because of them. After college, he travels the world in search of more spiritual enlightenment, even working in a hospital run by Mother Teresa at one point. At times, it seems Mitchell is exploring faith to forget about Madeleine, as when he considers, however briefly, a life of celibacy.
Like Madeleine's, Mitchell's thoughts seem ill-suited to the modern university. But perhaps somewhere there is a place where believers can seek Truth from education. Maybe somewhere there is a bubble.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer whose work focuses on higher education, religion, philanthropy, and culture. She is the author most recently of The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Paid for (Ivan R. Dee).
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