I finally got the chance to read Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. I’d had this book on my must-read list for almost a year, and I was determined to find the time to read it though. And I was not disappointed: this is a magisterial novel, full of the grand emotions and differing perceptions that epitomize a long marriage, a relationship seen from both sides, and it contains some of the most exquisite language I have ever read. The story is about Lancelot, known as Lotto (“fate”), and his wife Mathilde, the “fury,” and the novel is divided into two parts that represent each of them. Lotto’s story comes first, a narrative of what he perceives to be his fateful life–his early, privileged life growing up in a wealthy family in Florida, a chance encounter with Mathilde his last week of college at Vassar in 1991, their impetuous marriage, his not-quite-successful career as an actor, and then the out-of-the-blue (he thinks) opportunity to become a playwright. Here is Groff writing about Lotto’s joy and elation at having “magicked” Mathilde into becoming his wife: “He longed for something wordless and potent: what? To wear her. He imagined living in her warmth forever. People in his life had fallen away from him one by one like dominoes; every movement pinned her further so that she could not abandon him.” Lotto believes that he is the master of his fate, that much good has befallen him by chance, but that he ultimately deserves an expansive life rich in love, admiration, ease, and money.
Mathilde’s story pinholes everything Lotto has come to believe as the truth of his life. Here, Groff writes non-linearly in order to show Mathilde’s versions of events, some as foundational as how they decided to get married: Lotto misremembers Mathilde’s reaction, and though minor, this is emblematic of the differing perceptions that the two have of their relationship: “Between his skin and hers, there was the smallest of spaces, barely enough for air, for this slick of sweat now chilling. Even still, a third person, their marriage, had slid in.” Mathilde is actually a much darker person that Lotto could ever believe, has a deeply hidden past, and has also made much of what Lotto thinks are chance events come true through (literally) behind-the-scenes maneuvers. She has secretly edited and re-written all of Lotto’s plays, has control over the way they are staged, and continues to work in the background to insure Lotto’s success. Here Groff also confronts the inequities in a marriage when one partner achieves a kind of immense fame that drives their intertwined lives forward. It is telling that Mathilde has the last word in the novel.
This is such a deeply written book, with sentences so finely wrought that they take your breath away. And Groff’s intricate plot shines such a focused light on the way events in a long-term relationship can be seen so differently, and the way jealousy and revenge threaten the kind of balance that marriage aspires to. Fates and Furies is well worth reading, though it may disturb you with the intensity of its writing.