Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies has been circling my mind for awhile, first on my shelf when I first bought it a year ago, then recommended by a fellow reader who was anxious to know what I thought about it, later as a book club pick last year, and finally as one of the books lauded by President Obama on his reading list. Nonetheless, I managed to avoid reading it. Now that I have, the story may never leave my mind.
In a clever twist of “he said, she said,” Groff tells the story of the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde with the reader as the voyeur. Since the book has been floating about for a while, I had heard some of the differences in the tales, but Mathilde’s story was still a shock, with Groff’s lesson in how little we may know each other – even if we are married.
Not to spoil the delicate balance and the surprise if you have not yet read the book, I will not go into details, but to cleanse my mind of the impact, I am writing a little about the book. Divided into two sections, Groff addresses Lotto’s life in the first section of the book – “Fates.” Lotto is the tall strong hero, handsome but not perfectly so. Scars from teenage acne still mark his face, but his foundation is strong in a mother who doted on him, friends who were drawn to his charisma, and a dead father who left his wealth. In his mind, Lotto is a man who can do anything – unknowingly helped along by his mother’s influence and her masterful wielding of the family money. When he fails as an actor, he becomes a playwright. When he meets Mathilde, he stops sleeping around and becomes a faithful husband. When his life comes crashing down from a revelation that all is not as it seemed, he just stops, unable to exist without the facade.
I had not expected Groff’s dissection of Mathilde’s life-before-Lotto in the section of the book titled”Furies.” Marked as a pre-schooler as a terrible child, she floats among the dietrus of her French family until she strikes a deal for her tuition to Vassar, where she finally meets Lotto, who promises her the security she longs for. Although she is never who she seems, Mathilde becomes a facsimile of what Lotto expects – a supportive wife who works at menial jobs until her artistic husband finds himself. Lotto’s mother, who disinherited her son when he married, suddenly appears differently – not so much the spiteful harridan but a protective mother – perhaps justifiably vindictive, when Groff reveals new information about Mathilde’s sketchy young life and her continuing deceit.
Groff eventually strips away each character’s covering as the story continues. Depending on whose eyes you use to see, each one’s flaws are redeemable or irrevocably horrible. Noone is as they seem, but then no one is all good or all bad; motivations wobble between selflessness and selfishness – we are all flawed, we all tend to take care of ourselves first – saved sometimes only by love – sometimes not. In her interview with Charlie Rose, Lauren Groff identifies with the narcissism of Lotto and the rage of Mathilde, noting we are all intermittently slaves to our egos, and all women are Furies, consciously or not, raging against the world’s low expectations for them.
Groff’s books are not for everyone, but having read The Monsters of Templeton, and Arcadia, I have become a fan. In Fates and Furies, she delivers another twisted tale of the human condition, with strong lessons and a haunting admonition.
Related Review: Arcadia