Earlier this month, I finished the much acclaimed novel, “Fates and Furies,” a book I’d put on my birthday wish lift. Written by Lauren Groff and highly praised by several friends and writers I respect, it is a novel about “marriage, creativity, power, and perception.” So says the book jacket.
I’ve waited until now to share my impressions of the book because even now I still have mixed feelings.
I was drawn to it because it sounded incredibly interesting — the idea that a novel about marriage could be told through the husband’s eyes in the first half and then through the wife’s in the second half.
And it is interesting. True to its billing, it’s full of stunning revelations and multiple threads as Groff depicts the highs, lows and complications of a marriage over the course of 24 years. More than just two perspectives, I felt I was viewing a marriage from multiple angles, much as a prism refracts light into many hues.
Groff’s ability to tell a complex, multi-layered story, rich with insight and pathos, is remarkable. And there were times when I paused to marvel at her facility with the English language.
One example: “Moon a navel, light on the water a trail of fine hair leading straight to Lotto.”
As much as I appreciated the novel’s premise and some of the soaring language, I can’t say I loved this book. Not in the way I love the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, whose elegant writing and totally believable characters combine to create a feeling of authenticity.
To tell the truth, I almost stopped reading “Fates and Furies” roughly a third of the way in.
It wasn’t that the author kept me busy consulting the dictionary to understand the meaning of words that I’d never seen before. I concede that the precision in her prose was justified. No, my hesitation had to do with the characters themselves and the world they live in.
Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder meet in the final months of college at Vassar in 1991 and get married two weeks later. Lotto is the proverbial golden boy — rich, handsome, the product of a New England prep school and widely known on campus for his promiscuity and acting aspirations. Mathilde is an enigma — tall, blonde and reserved with a personal history no one seems to know.
In the early years, their household seems to run on good luck and good sex — lots of it — until Lotto, a failed actor, discovers his true talent as a playwright. He becomes world-famous and the couple’s threadbare existence (the result of Lotto’s falling out with his widowed mother, an eccentric heiress in Florida he calls “Muvva”) abruptly becomes one of money and privilege.
There’s a section of the book that, for me, bogs down with allusions to Greek mythology and works of Shakespeare as Lotto’s star ascends in the world of theater. Here is where I had to ask myself, “Do I really care about these characters? Is it necessary to like the main characters to like the novel itself?”
I don’t think so. But if I’m being honest, I’d say it does give me more incentive to plow through a novel when I feel more of an emotional connection to fictional characters.
All this said, I give Groff the highest praise for delivering one surprise after another in the telling of Mathilde’s story of sacrifice and unseen contributions to the marriage. I don’t think I give away anything when I say that Lotto — already depicted as shallow and egocentric — comes across as even more clueless and dependent in his wife’s eyes.
“Somehow, despite her politics and smarts,” Groff writes, “[Mathilde] had become a wife, and wives, as we all know, are invisible. The midnight elves of marriage. The house in the country, the apartment in the city, the taxes, the dog, all were her concern: he had no idea what she did with her time.”
Mathilde’s mysterious back story is compelling and worthy of empathy. But even as she ages, she too acts in ways that make her less likable. Give Groff credit for creating a multifaceted character.
“Fates and Furies” is Groff’s third novel. It’s an exceptional book as measured by several criteria: inventive writing, spot-on dialogue, sharp observations about character and class, and a sound structure.
But does it rise to a place among my favorite books? No.