But there's one way, however, in which Madeleine defies believability: She has no true female friends. Yes, she has roommates and a sister with whom
she once had "heavy" emotional conversations, but these relationships are characterized more by spite than affection. And, sadly, The Marriage Plot is
just the latest story to forget to give its heroine friends. There are countless other Madeleines in modern-day literature and film: smart,
self-assured women who have all the trappings of contemporary womanhood except a group of friends to confide in.
When the young man Madeleine has
recently broken up with is committed to the hospital for a nervous breakdown, none of Madeleine's friends bothers to tell her—she only finds out when
one of his buddies calls on graduation day to give her the news. (When Madeleine confronts her roommates later, they claim to have concealed the truth
from her to protect her, but the exchange is so tense, so full of contempt, that it's impossible to believe her friends' actions were motivated by
anything other than spite.)
Similarly, Madeleine's relationship with her sister, Alwyn, is oddly chilly and hostile. At one point, she dramatically reveals to their mother that
Madeleine's boyfriend is on lithium for manic depression. It's an announcement made not out of concern for her sister, but in triumph: She wants to prove to
their mother that Madeleine's relationship isn't as perfect as it seems, and in turn deflect attention from her own failing marriage.
If this were the way women really acted with their friends, it would be fine. Novelists are under no obligation to make relationships seem sunnier than
they are in real life. But real women don't treat their friends this way. Real women have true friends—not friends they secretly hate, not friends they are
in constant competition with, but friends they care about and can talk to and who understand them. Women who love books, as Madeleine does, are
especially prone to close friendships with other women because there is an obvious subject to talk about: books.
Indeed, the one glimpse we get of what true friendship would look like for Madeleine is at a literary conference, where she meets two young women who
share her love of Victorian novels. "As little as she had in common with Meg and Anne," Eugenides writes of her new friends, "Madeleine couldn't
remember having a better time. The entire weekend, they didn't once ask if she had a boyfriend. They just wanted to talk about literature." Where were
women like Meg and Anne when Madeleine was at college? It seems impossible that Madeleine would have made it through four years at Brown without
meeting other women who'd rather discuss literature than men.
Eugenides is not alone in his failure to give his protagonist believable female friends. Authentic portrayals of female friendship are so rare that
there's a test to evaluate stories based on how they depict women interacting with each other: the now-infamous Bechdel Test. It suggests that for a
story to be even a somewhat realistic portrayal of women, it must have "at least two female characters who talk to each other about something besides a
man." The Marriage Plot (except for those few, brief pages set at the lit conference) fails the Bechdel Test, but so does a whole range of
contemporary books and movies with supposedly intelligent female leads, from Lost In Translation to Blue Valentine to One Day. Even Bridesmaids, the otherwise groundbreaking female-centric comedy from earlier this year, fell short in its rendering of female friends (though it
did pass the Bechdel Test). As Miriam Krule wrote here at The Atlantic soon after the film came out, "this movie is about enemies who started
out friends, and for reasons that are unclear to the viewer, become friends again by the end."