Conventional wisdom suggests that marriage works best when it’s fueled by twin engines of honesty and communication. But in her surprising new novel, Lauren Groff tells us something else entirely: that sometimes secrets and evasions are the glue that bind two lives together.
Fates and Furies is Groff’s fourth work of fiction — she’s the author of the novels The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia and the story collection Delicate Edible Birds — and it represents a giant leap for the writer, who lives in Gainesville. This is not to say her other books aren’t worthy. The Monsters of Templeton, set in her hometown of Cooperstown, New York, was an engaging debut about a young woman who returns home in the wake of a calamitous affair and discovers a big family secret (as a bonus, there’s a prehistoric monster in the lake). Groff was also prescient enough to explore unnerving apocalyptic possibilities in Arcadia a few years ahead of the recent trend as she charted the history of an upstate New York commune and its residents.
Fates and Furies, though, is even more ambitious, and Groff’s boldness pays off (the book is a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction). The title evokes images of Greek mythology in all its vicious glory as Groff examines a marriage by dosing it with epic overtones and filling it with the sort of themes the gods themselves would appreciate: jealousy; betrayal; art; death; love; revenge.
The book opens with a vignette of a couple making sandy love amid the dunes: Mathilde and Lotto (short for Lancelot). They have known each other about two weeks and have just been secretly married. Everything is (seems) perfect.
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Examining bliss, however, is not exactly what Groff is after; instead, she takes a hard look at the societal roles into which men and women are hammered. In the first half of the book (“Fates”) we hear Lotto’s story, full of mythical allusions. His mother was a mermaid (truly — she performed at Weeki Wacheebefore marrying Lotto’s father Gawain, the first doomed gallant in the story). Lotto was born in a hurricane, howling like the squall outside. Groff’s implication is that Lotto will one day make plenty of noise, and he does. But for now, he grows up in Central Florida, where he watches a sinkhole swallow the family’s outhouse. There will be other, deeper, darker sinkholes to come, sucking what he loves out of his life and setting the course for what’s to come.
Then Lotto and Mathilde meet just before their college graduation at Vassar. He’s a shining, wildly promiscuous, would-be actor; she’s a quiet, watchful, mysterious beauty. He sees her across a crowded room (really), comes to her, drops to a knee and asks her to marry him. She says, “sure,” the first installment in their marriage mythology. At least, he thinks she said “sure.” Does it matter if she didn’t?
Groff says yes — and no — when we shift to the second half of the book (“Furies”). She casts doubt on much of what we’ve learned by revealing Mathilde’s story, darker and more complex than Lotto could imagine (“Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband”). He’s the successful playwright, but Mathilde has no doubts: “She knew she was the interesting one.” Readers will feel this way, too: There’s almost too much Lotto in the first half, and his ego grows a bit tiresome, but Groff is making a valid point here about sexual politics and marital roles, one that grows sharper as the novel progresses.
One of the most effective tricks Groff employs is voicing a Greek chorus of sorts that comments parenthetically. Lotto “didn’t deserve these women who surrounded him. [Perhaps not.]” His sister Rachel embraces a punk aesthetic at 10: “She understood it was better to be weird than twee. [Smart girl.]” Upon waking up after a snow storm, Lotto thinks of poetry. “Good old Robby Frost, he thought. The ones who said the world would end in ice were right. [Wrong. Fire.]”
Who or what this chorus is we never learn, but Groff uses it to deftly illustrate the gap between our perceptions and reality. One Christmas, as Lotto and Mathilde and their family and friends fight and sulk and long for better days, a stranger passes their basement apartment, catching his breath at what he sees: “[A] circle of singing people bathed in clean white light from a tree, and his heart did a somersault, and the image stayed with him. ... It remained long after his children ripped open their gifts and abandoned their toys in puddles of paper and grew too old for them and left their house and parents and childhoods, so that he and his wife gaped at each other in bewilderment as to how it had happened so terribly swiftly. All those years, the singers in the soft light ... became the very idea of what happiness should look like.”
We all need our stories, our myths, and so we stick with them. Our truth is what we choose to believe. Right? Sure. As Groff’s wise narrator says: “Tragedy, comedy. It’s all a matter of vision.”
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.