A potential danger when reading novels is that we can become a passive audience. The narrative should be designed to lead us down the path of a story without giving all the answers. If you’re not questioning what’s being told or asking what’s missing from the tale, reading ceases to be a participatory experience. Too often in literature it’s the wives who are left by the wayside. It’s observed in this novel that “Women in narratives were always defined by their relations.” They become a prop within the narrative or part of the background to flesh out the meatier story of the husband. The atrocious thing about this isn’t just that the writer has failed to honour the psychological reality of the female characters, but that readers don’t always ask what the wives’ perspectives might be. Instead we can become complacent, receive what the author tells us about the heroic life of the man and wonder nothing more about their faithful wives. In “Fates and Furies” Lauren Groff gives us such a story and skewers it with an iron spear. She challenges the expectations of the reader and creates an invigoratingly new kind of novel about how the participants in a marriage are first and foremost individuals.
A man named Lancelot or “Lotto” struggles to succeed in life, but he's driven by an overwhelming conviction that he was destined for something great. Although he comes from a privileged background, Lotto experiences a difficult childhood. Groff has a particular talent for summing up great swaths of emotion with terse prose. She states: “The world was precarious, Lotto had learned. People could be subtracted from it with swift bad math.” He escapes from his troubled family life with teenage rebellion and a keen drive for sexual conquest – up until he meets Mathilde. Their spontaneous marriage provides a bedrock upon which he can build a career and realize his full potential.
Although Mathilde is always present in the narrative she hovers in the background and never gets a voice. But, with the second half of the novel, her story comes to the forefront and her life is (of course) much more complex than Lotto assumed it was. Both Lotto and Mathilde keep many secrets from each other. It's noted that “Marriage is made of lies. Kindly ones, mostly. Omissions.” Mostly this isn't done out of malice; overall their marriage is a successful and happy one. It's unusual to read about a couple who are married for so many years yet never lose their vigorous physical connection or break apart because of an affair. As a team they are well suited as Lotto harbours grand ambitions which Mathilde can support him in realizing. In turn, Lotto gives her stability and affection: things which she sorely lacked in her unusual and emotionally-deprived childhood. Even so, their long-term relationship isn't a happily ever after story. Chance plays a role in the highs and lows of their years together. Groff writes “There is no absolute anything. The gods love to fuck with us.”
The writing in this novel is so sharp and clever. I loved the astute observations Groff makes especially about the changes and transformations we make throughout our lives. When the very sociable couple find their circle of friends being whittled down over the years it's stated that “The ones who remained were heart wood, marrow.” This is such a beautiful way of summarizing how people that stay closest to us throughout our lives remain so because they are the people who feel vital. She's equally good at making observations about how the body changes over time. When Lotto looks down at himself one day in his middle age “He poked at the belly the size of a six-month-old baby glued to his midsection.” It's a comical way of describing how our bodies are things we inhabit our whole lives, but there is a curious distance between the way we feel we are and the way we physically appear in reality. Groff's wry humour amidst making pointed and often surprising observations makes this novel such a pleasure to read. She can take something as serious and personal as the loss of a dear loved one and comment upon the irrational behaviour that follows “What was grief but an extended tantrum to be salved by sex and candy?” The characters are handled sympathetically and their struggles feel so personal, but there is always a healthy level of objective distance taken.
There is a lot in this novel about the nature of storytelling itself. The characters are cast in dramas which subtly mimic mythic tales. Yet it feels so invigorating, new and relevant to our time period. There are tropes that are familiar, but “This isn’t Oliver Twist.” Long periods of Lotto's life are conveyed through the plays he writes. Mathilde's narrative is much more fragmented and skips around wildly between periods of her life – as is fitting for her mental state at the time we join her story. Groff could be speaking about her own impatience with traditional narratives when she writes in this novel “She was so tired of the old ways 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.” For it's gripping richly-plotted drama and its deep understanding of the complexity of identity, “Fates and Furies” feels explosive.