Roberta Brown-Jones, Nederland. I picked up Lauren Groff’s new book Fates and Furies after hearing an intriguing interview with the author on NPR. Fates and Furies is partly about marriage, but its characters and depictions of life are so much more than mere marriage analysis. The book has been described as a meditation on the interplay between destiny and human agency, and this meditation is what forms the most unusual and enlightening aspects of the novel.
The book is composed of two parts, described as parallel myths by some reviewers. As the novel’s story unfolds we are let into the captivating world of Lotto (short for Lancelot), a struggling Shakespearean actor who later turns to playwriting, and Mathilde, a bright, aloof Vassar student. They come from radically different backgrounds and each has their secret past. Lotto is said to represent destiny, the “Fates,” while Mathilde is the embodiment of the “Furies,” bending the world to her liking.
The first section of the book is told from Lotto’s perspective, the golden, much loved, narcissistic Florida boy who as a teen is exiled to prep school in New Hampshire, after some disturbing teen escapades. He later enrolls at Vassar where he meets Mathilde toward the end of his college years. The second section is told from Mathilde’s perspective. In it the reader discovers Mathilde’s dark history prior to meeting Lotto.
Groff creates a world that seems mythical but is made real through her talent for using richly evocative language. Groff captures the essence of Florida, Lotto’s birthplace, with all of its oddities and contradictions, described perfectly from its Weeki Wachee tourist attraction, featuring females in mermaid outfits, to its “live oaks conducting the storm with mossy arms,” to its “humid stink” and alligators peeking out of the reeds. Omniscient narrator comments scattered throughout via parenthetical asides, reminiscent of the choral chants of Greek tragedies, make the reader aware of the script behind the scenes.
Lotto and Mathilde, statuesque and dazzling, are portrayed in godlike terms. However, Groff is sure to also point out their flaws with references to Lotto’s teenage acne which leaves him with lifetime pockmarks and Mathilde’s cold exterior and “gangly tall body.”
Both Lotto and Mathilde are fascinating in their own right, but “a third person, marriage” enters the story early on, and it is this marriage which is portrayed in sharp focus as it is viewed from many angles. Lotto and Mathilde’s love is enviable, yet other characters in the book, in their worst moments, bet on when the fairytale romance will end. As the book unfolds, Groff deconstructs marriage—its joys, mundanities, cruelties, and disappointments—only to reconstruct marriage in a more realistic light by the novel’s end. Despite the lies and secrets beneath the façade, Groff shows how it is the “silent intimacies” and the “small and daily” gestures that, at their best, embody the value of what marriage has to offer.
Through the life stories of each character, Groff is able to create humane characters, despite past histories of inhumane and immoral activities. Groff shows how fateful events shape us whether we realize it at the time or not: “It occurred to her that life was conical in shape, the past broadening beyond the sharp point of the lived moment. The more life you had, the more the base expanded, so that the wounds and treasons that were nearly imperceptible when they happened stretched like tiny dots on a balloon slowly blown up.”
A finalist for the National Book Award this year (although it didn’t win), Fates and Furies is definitely a book to read and enjoy for all of its character and plot complexities and for the sheer beauty of some of its passages.
Roberta Brown-Jones is a Library Assistant at the Nederland Community Library.