An older woman lazes in a bathtub, her legs splayed out before her in an X. She reflects back on her life -- the triumphs and disappointments, big and small -- and takes note that her trajectory, her timeline, has moved along in the shape of an X. Her youth was strange, tragic; her middle-age was thrilling, full of love; her final years had a vagueness to them rippling out from the exciting high-point. At the center of that X is her marriage, her source of meaning. Lauren Groff’s new novel, Fates and Furies, tells the story of that marriage from the vantage point of both parties: Mathilde, the beautiful, poised, reflective woman, and Lotto, her husband, a beaming, bearlike playwright who lives for the grandiose.
The two meet at a cast party their senior year at Vassar, after a production of “Hamlet” Lotto starred in. The way Lotto tells it, he saw Mathilde from across the room, and, struck by her beauty, facetiously got down on one knee. To his dramatic inquiry, Mathilde shrugged, “Sure.” Mathilde let him believe his version of her story -- she prefers to see him happy than to force him to confront reality -- but she remembers it differently. Over the noise of the party, she laughingly turned down Lotto’s offer. Still, weeks later, they got married. And, years after the lightening-fast engagement, their initial infatuation sustained them through thwarted ambitions (Lotto’s, acting; Mathilde’s, art), tiffs with estranged family members, and disagreements about whether they should have children.
The key to their success, according to Groff: secrets. When Lotto’s callous mother called Mathilde to bribe her into an annulment, she kept the biting scene to herself. When Lotto’s admiration for an artist colony colleague bubbled over into infatuation, he didn’t dare tell his wife. For better or for worse, Mathilde’s desire to quietly please -- making edits to Lotto’s plays in the night, ensuring that all bills and dishes are tidily done -- allowed their marriage to run smoothly. And Lotto’s ample gratitude, albeit muddied at times by arrogance, helped grease the machine.
Groff is tuned into how old-fashioned this seems; at a playwriting conference, Lotto is attacked for his gender-normative approach to marriage. And his comfortable life, made easier by the women around him, is narrated by an omniscient chorus, chiming in clever asides, snarking about his naivety.
While the portion of the book devoted to Lotto’s perspective has a Bard-like theatricality, Mathilde’s is slightly coarser, grittier, more realistic. Tasked with doing the behind-the-scenes dirty work of the marriage, she offers a more reliable viewpoint than Lotto’s. The reader learns of her secret motives and ambitions, and, after tragedy strikes, learns of the inner coping mechanisms hidden behind a composed exterior. Groff describes her as a sort of anti-Anna Karenina; hardened by loss, she grows tougher in her newfound independence.
There’s humor in her approach to coping -- she slinks around the house naked, spending time with her dog named God -- just as there’s a touch of tragedy in Lotto’s jolly, bombastic demeanor. That’s Groff’s gift: imbuing each scene with subtle, duelling layers of emotion.
The bottom line:
A saga of secrets, Fates and Furies examines the conjoined perspectives that make up a mostly happy -- if at times tragic -- marital relationship.
Who wrote it?
Lauren Groff is the author of Arcadia and The Monsters of Templeton. She’s a finalist for the Orange Award for New Writers.
Who will read it?
Those interested in sprawling, epic stories, or stories about marital bliss or turmoil. Those interested in anything Shakespeare-adjacent.
A thick drizzle from the sky, like a curtain’s sudden sweeping. The seabirds stopped their tuning, the ocean went mute. Houselights over the water dimmed to gray.
Oh, yes, you’d return to your wife on hands and knees, crawl the distance of the Eastern Seaboard to feel her fingers once more in your hair. You’re unworthy of her [Yes. [No.]]
Fates and Furies
by Lauren Groff
Riverhead Books, $27.95
Publishes September 15, 2015
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