Review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff is the author of one of my favorite short story collections of all time. I was absolutely blown away by Florida, which I read first, before any of Groff’s novels. After Florida, I read The Monsters of Templeton, which was very much a debut novel, replete with the missteps one associates with a first attempt. Some authors are stronger as short story writers than novelists; the two forms are decidedly different, and mastery of one is far from a guarantee of mastery of the other. That said, I have reservations about assessing a novelist on the basis of a debut. Fates and Furies was thus my chosen litmus test.
Lauren Groff is clearly an expert short story writer. But is she also a great novelist?
Fates and Furies is divided in two halves: “Fates” and “Furies.” “Fates” follows Lotto (short for Lancelot), a dynamic playwright whose personality is closer to Casanova than Arthurian knight. He is charismatic, handsome but not perfectly handsome (rather, “[h]is bad skin, his big forehead, the slightly bulbous nose, moderated what was an almost girlishly pretty face into something sexy), and, against everyone’s expectations to the contrary, profoundly loyal to his wife, Mathilde.
“Fates” is a character study; the plot spans the scope of Lotto’s life, from birth to (untimely) death, and its themes orbit Lotto’s trajectory. He’s a raconteur turned playwright (themes: art and creativity), philanderer turned monogamous husband (themes: sex, love, marriage), sybarite in a life of opulence (themes: success, pleasure, fulfillment).
In childhood, Lotto is an uncomplicated golden son, precocious and lovely, the apple of his exceedingly wealthy parents’ eyes. When his father dies suddenly of a stroke, Lotto’s golden shine is dimmed by a troubled adolescence. Determined to subvert the wayward influence of the unsavory friends Lotto begins to attract, Lotto’s mother sends him away to boarding school, where he is miserable. He resolves to commit suicide, a plan that is derailed by the discovery of theater and an aptitude for becoming someone else. Lotto blossoms into a brilliant actor.
At an afterparty following a successful performance during his senior year of college, Lotto meets Mathilde. She enters his life much as she enters the dorm room on that fated night. Lotto sees her and his crowd of admirers falls away. He marries her two weeks later and the world falls away. “They were two, which meant they were not one.” Twenty-two and beautiful, they are an enviable pair, even if few believe the marriage will last. And yet, it does. Through the highs and lows of life — and for Lotto, the lows are manageable bumps along a burnished arc of artistic success — their partnership weathers every storm. The novel’s central question is: how? Is it luck? Labor? Love?
If the first half of Groff’s novel is a study of Lotto, the second is, fittingly, a study of Mathilde. But while “Fates” would be marketed as a docudrama, “Furies” is a psychological thriller. Mathilde’s life exists in striking juxtaposition to Lotto’s; where he is lightness, she is shadow. As a girl, Mathilde was called Aurélie and, when she was four years old, Aurélie either pushed her infant brother down the stairs, or she let him fall. “Afterward, love had been withdrawn. And she had pushed or she hadn’t; the result was all the same.” Aurélie’s parents abandon her and she is sent first to live with an aunt in Paris and then an uncle in the United States. In the transition, Aurélie adopts a new identity. Mathilde is strong where Aurélie was weak; Mathilde can navigate the world’s cruelties and bend them to her advantage.
When Mathilde graduates high school, her uncle refuses to pay for her college tuition, so she sells her only valuable possession. For four years, she gives her body to a man named Ariel and, in return, secures four years of undergraduate study. As the expiration date on Mathilde’s arrangement with Ariel draws near, she becomes aware of an intriguing boy on campus who is the heir to a sizable fortune. When Lotto and Mathilde exchange vows, Lotto’s mother cuts him off from his inheritance in the hopes that he will reconsider his impulsive marriage. Of course, by then, it’s too late — engineered or not, Mathilde and Lotto are both genuinely in love.
At the close of Lotto’s life, a reader might be tempted to answer the “how” question with some combination of “love” and “luck.” At the end of Mathilde’s life, the answer to the question of the pair’s successful relationship includes love, but luck is out of the question. Instead, luck is replaced with “lies.”
Most interestingly, the theme of Mathilde’s narrative is narration itself. What is agency? Who is deserving of the title “author”? Are any of us really the architects of our own lives?
Lotto’s half of the novel is pleasant. It moves fluidly, a bit like a stylized version of John Irving’s prose. The plot is not the point — the immersion is. Lotto’s life is big and atmospheric and Groff constructs a narrative arc that readers can luxuriate in. Simply put, it works; it’s enjoyable but not remarkable. “Furies,” on the other hand, is gripping. Mathilde’s life is riddled with abandonment and despair, degradation and manipulation, and, for the first time, the plot is the point — it’s a rewrite of everything that came before it. “Furies” is thrilling, but again, not remarkable.
Ultimately, it is in the combination of Lotto’s and Mathilde’s narratives that Groff reveals her novelistic prowess. Both halves of the novel are good, but flawed as standalone stories. In the first half, there is an overabundance of scenes, particularly those describing Lotto’s theatrical work, that act as a drag on the narrative propulsion. In Mathilde’s half, the propulsion is at times so exaggerated that it verges on unbelievable. But in the pairing of “Fates” and “Furies,” the flaws are lessened — they give way to a dynamic and kaleidoscopic whole. For patient readers willing to read it in its entirety, Fates and Furies is a rewarding novel.
Rating: 4 stars
Grief is for the strong, who use it as fuel for burning.
Doomed people celebrate peace with sky bombs.
“Your life seems simple,” Lancelot said.
Leo Sen said, “My life is beautiful.”
Lancelot saw that it was. He was enough of a lover of forms to understand the allure of such a strict life, how much internal wildness it could release.
Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you’d crush them to paste.
Paradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely; you do know someone entirely.
But she made a promise that he would never know the scope of her darkness, that she would never show him the evil that lived in her, that he would know of her only a great love and light. And she wanted to believe that their whole life together he did.
Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California.