I mentioned a week or so ago that I have decided to try and get involved, unofficially, with the Tournament of Books this year. The title, and indeed the author, that I have heard the most positive murmurs about both her in the UK and when I was in the US was Lauren Groff and Fates and Furies. I knew nothing other than the fact that lots of people I trust love her writing and this book and so I went into it completely blind with no idea of what to expect from the plot or the prose which can sometimes be the best way in. What unfolded was a book which I enjoyed very much indeed and has grown on me all the more since I read it.
One of the things that has always bothered me most, and left me with some sleepless nights, is the fact that you can never really know exactly what someone else is thinking ever. Be it your family, friends or your partner. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is a novel that looks at this conundrum thorough both sets of eyes in a marriage. Lotto and Mathilde seem like the perfect couple, in fact when they meet in their early twenties at a party everyone looks on as two of the most beautiful people first set eyes on each other and Lotto proposes on the spot. They soon become the envy of their friends, she the mysterious intellect who no one really knows and he the well known promising actor and loaded lothario who pretty much sleeps with whoever he wishes.
Despite many people, including their closest friends, thinking that this marriage will end before it has even started Lotto and Mathilde create a marriage that not only lasts after the initial honeymoon period but can weather any storm be it disinheritance, poverty, depression, unemployment you name it. Mathilde has tamed Lotto; Lotto has captured the mystery that is Mathilde. This is the version we are given in the first half of the book as we see the relationship through the eyes of Lotto, along with the history of his life up to the point he meet Mathilde. The question is will his perception be the same as Mathilde’s as we switch to her point of view in the second half, what secrets (good and bad) do they have from each other; do they really know each other?
He touched her hand. He bent down on one knee and shouted up, “Marry me!” And she didn’t know what to do; she laughed and looked down at him, and said “No!”
In the story he told of this – spun at so many parties, so many dinners, she listening with her smile, her head cocked, laughing slightly – she said, “Sure.” She never corrected him, not once. Why not let him live with his illusion? It made him happy. She loved making him happy. Sure! It wasn’t true, not for another two weeks when she would marry him, but it did no harm.
I thought Fates and Furies was a fascinating read for many reasons; the problem is how to tell you about them all without giving anything away. Often with a story told from two sides you feel that the author is with one character more than the other, or one character is the good one and the other will be the bad. Come on, it’s true. Not so with Fates and Furies as we discover both characters are flawed, both have faults and flaws as they do generosity and kindness, both come off the page fully formed, both are often oblivious to little things going on with the other, both are equals in the eye of the author and therefore the reader. Groff then treats us readers into hear both sides and so feeling a mixture of spectator/voyeur, confident and accomplice to everything that follows. You also feel at once clever, shocked and emotionally torn when you figure everything out just when Groff wants you to. All this I found particularly refreshing and rewarding reading.
I also think that whilst the tale of the secrets of a marriage is nothing new, the way that Groff deals with it all is from a new stance. At one point you very much feel that Groff gives you her thoughts on fiction and what she wants to do with it through Mathilde. She was so tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too-worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off. I won’t say it was quite like a bomb, however the way in which Groff delivers Fates and Furies is quite unusual, and you just have to work at it sometimes. This is no bad thing and actually I think this is why it has stayed with me and grown on me since.
Sometimes the perspective of the narrative will shift in Lotto or Mathilde’s narrative, not to the other person in the marriage but to an ominous third person or indeed one of their many ‘friends’ or relatives, it might only be for a sentence or a paragraph and it’s done with such a deft sleight of hand you don’t notice until a little while after. As Lotto becomes a famous playwright some of the sections are summed up with the title of the play, an excerpt of it, a review or glimpse of the writing process which mirrors or says something about the place the marriage is at. In one part of the book we jump from month to month or year to year from party to party to get a glimpse of where Lotto, Mathilde and those around them are at. Nothing is done randomly here, Groff always has a reason, and you just don’t instantly see it. You could string together the parties Lotto and Mathilde had been to like a necklace, and you would have their marriage in miniature.
Not only is Groff quite something stylistically, which makes the book a challenge but over all a joy to read, her prose is wonderful. In a sentence she can set the scene within a few words or lines. Sunset. House on the dunes like a sea-tossed conch. Pelicans thumbtacked in the wind. Gopher tortoise under the palmetto. She also has an incredible ability to make things so vivid so effortlessly that sometime you forget that the memories are of the characters rather than your own for the emotions they evoke. The place smelled of her, talcum and roses. Dust a soft gray skin over the chintz and Lladro. Also mildew, the sea’s armpit stink.
Another aspect that I thought was great was that fairytale and myth, in particular Greek tragedy, play a huge part in Fates and Furies resonating and rippling through the book. Mermaids, witches and goblins are often referenced or show up in some way, soon turning out to be nothing magical at all, linking into the whole idea of facades and the fantasies we build in our heads versus the reality, just as Lotto and Mathilde seem the perfect fairytale romance. The Greek tragedy elements (apt as I will be surrounded by Greek ruins when this goes live) appear both in the plays that Lotto chooses to adapt and then Mathilde’s storyline as it unfolds, hints of which lie in the title of the novel. I loved all this; some might even say I revelled in it.
There were a few niggles along the way that I should mention. I found the first half of the book overly long, whilst I understood why after finishing the novel I actually think Lotto’s story could have been a third of the book and Mathilde’s two thirds and remained just as visceral, intricate and poignant when all becomes clear. Two literary tropes which I am never keen on, even with writing as wonderful as Groff’s, touched a slight nerve; the writing about the cultural world and theatre and art was a tad overegged as was the poor rich boy who fails then becomes famous, but these get on my nerves as tropes in general and in the hands of other authors would have severely ticked me off rather than slightly bothering me. Also on occasion the switch in style would throw me, only to then reward me a little later on so I soon forgave it. Oh and I could have done with a little more fury towards the end, only a sprinkling more in the direction of one character who you will undoubtedly love to hate as much as I did. These were minor moments though within a fantastically large and larger than life (and all the better for being both) novel.
I would highly recommend Fates and Furies. It is a novel that intricately and intelligently looks at how you can only hazard a guess at what people are thinking or only hope that those closest to you are telling you what they really feel or are experiencing in their heads/lives and yet you’ll never really know. The story and characters are compelling, the style exciting, the prose second to none and the questions around secrets, when they are bad and when they work for the good, really thought provoking. It will also punch you in your emotional weak points, make you laugh and remind you to cherish what you have and be honest with those you love.
See, it just keeps on growing and growing on me the more I think about it. I have to hunt down Lauren Groff’s other books, any suggestions on where to start next? I would also love your thoughts on Fates and Furies if, or once, you have read it.