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September 20, 2015

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

fates-and-furies“…consider sacrificing surprise, the lowest form of literary pleasure, for the much richer satisfaction the first half of this novel can deliver when read in light of the second,” writes Laura Miller in her review of Lauren Groff’s new novel, Fates and Furies, in which spoilers are revealed. A line I delighted in when I first came upon it; that a good book can’t be spoiled is something I’ve long insisted on. But like all good rules, there are exceptions, and I got to thinking about them after reading Miller’s review. There are books—one of my favourite books, We Need to Talk About Kevin is one; a more recent example is Karma Brown’s debut, Come Away With Mealso Kate Atkinson’s wonder A God in Ruins—in which the element of surprise is an integral part of the reading experience. In which the reader gets to the twist, puts the book down and asks, “How did she do that?” When we aren’t even aware that a twist is coming. And then the reader goes on to pick the book up again in order to discover the answer to how did she do that, compelled by the crafting that goes into the kind of book that will never be read the same way twice. Whereas other compelling books—Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train—fail to similarly necessitate another reading. The twists are all. These are books—gripping, great and fun, but still—that can be spoiled merely by being read.

Fates and Furies is not quite either kind of book, but that is not surprising. I still vividly remember reading Groff’s debut, The Monsters of Templeton, for the very first time, and being bowled over by the book’s audacity, by the author’s talent. And with each subsequent book—the story collection, Delicate Edible Birds, and the acclaimed novel, Arcadia—Groff has surpassed all expectations. She’s a writer of huge ambition and even larger canvases, unabashedly literary, unabashedly story, traditional in her approach to crafting fiction, except that she seems to be reinventing the novel every time, pressing at its limits. I’ve spent the last week reading Fates and Furies and being particularly annoyed that anybody imagines Jonathan Franzen to be “a greatest living novelist” (?) when: Lauren Groff. Lauren Groff. Lauren Groff.

(If she were a man and a giant asshole, however, she’d definitely be discussed in those terms.)

There is not a twist in Fates and Furies, per se, but instead a shift. At one point, its shape is described as an X, an intersection. It’s the story of a marriage, but as Robin Black’s review on The New York Times explains, it’s (mercifully!) not so much about the institution of marriage as one marriage specifically, the individuals entwined within. The first half of the book (Fates) is concerned with Lancelot Satterwhite, known as Lotto, destined for greatness from birth. His story a whirlwind, taking us from his childhood growing up wealthy in Florida, his father’s death, his mother’s descent into mental illness, teenage delinquency headed off at the pass via prep school, and the college. And at the end of his four years there, on a cusp (he hopes) of a career as an actor, he meets Mathilde. They marry after a two week courtship, and for the next two decades she supports him through lean times and periods of great success as he finds fame and fortune as a playwright. The reader is party to their healthy sex life, chatter at their popular parties, their quiet moments and their public ones, as well as scenes from some of Lotto’s plays. Mathilda silent in the background, “a saint,” Lotto calls her, as well as a “pathological truth-teller.” The quintessential caregiver, wife.

I wasn’t sure… This is what I reported as I was reading through the novel initially, sometimes finding Groff’s prose overwritten, while at the same time fragmented in a way that was off-putting. The story so male, centred on the penis. Literally and otherwise. It wasn’t overwhelmingly interesting. And yet, I knew there was something. I wasn’t sure what because (uncharacteristically) I’d been avoiding spoilers, but I’d read the headline of Ron Charles’ review in the Washington Post which contained the word “masterful,” and the I’d read the first sentence: “Even from her impossibly high starting point, Lauren Groff just keeps getting better and better.” So I had faith, and I certainly wasn’t bored, just baffled, and it was just that my expectations were oh so high.

And as usual, Lauren Groff met them and then some.

There is not a twist in Fates and Furies, per se, but instead a shift. Midway through the book, the perspective moves to Mathilde’s, and we learn that nothing has been what it seems. And while Lotto’s story is indeed one of fate and luck and fortune, Mathilde has been the true orchestrator of their shared life, pulling strings Lotto never glimpsed (though as we note them dangling when we’re impelled to go back and reread). Mathilde’s story is the Furies of the title, beginning with a tragic childhood and, as Laura Miller writes, “Mathilde’s story contains more outlandishly fictional twists than those of David Copperfield, The Goldfinch’s Theo Decker, and Becky Sharp combined.” It’s all a bit nuts, but fascinating in its intersections with Lotto’s story, how the two parts complement each other. A bit of a relief too.

And fascinating for what the novel says about women’s lives and women’s stories, about the role of the wife, which is nothing like Lotto envisaged. In her acknowledgements, Groff credits the work of Jane Gardam for helping to inspire Fates and Furies, and the reader can see how she was inspired by Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat in her construction of separate universes within a single marriage, all the ways in which we are infinitely unknowable to each other.

Fates and Furies also suggests that men’s stories automatically take precedent in the literary canon. That Lotto’s story comes first is as symbolic as it is for literary emphasis. It would be easy for the reader to miss that Mathilde is a writer as well (and not just in her role as actual co-author of Lotto’s plays, manipulating his work as she did their entire life, perhaps this ensuring success). She’s a little bit Judith Shakespeare, albeit actually writing, but nobody reads it.

Anger’s my meat; I sup upon myself
And so shall starve with feeding.
Volumnia says this in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. She—steeling, controlling—is far more interesting than Coriolanus.
Alas, nobody would go to see a play called Volumnia.

(Later we learn that Mathilde writes a play called Volumnia. Nobody goes to see it.)

If there is a twist in Fates and Furies, it occurs in the novel’s final five pages, in which the book’s two sections are woven together in the most beautiful, heartbreakingly lovely manner. In which we realize that this isn’t just about two solitudes and deception, but that even with secrets, misunderstandings and mysteries never solved, there is such a thing as love after all. That the novel is not point and counterpoint, illusion and reality. That like all the great polarities, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

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