Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is almost perfect. This compact novel first masquerades as a domestic drama, but about 50 pages in I realized there were too many layers to label it that.
Yes, it’s the story of a marriage. Lotto (short for Lancelot) and Matilde impulsively marry at the end of their senior year at Vassar. Lotto, the golden boy, shines off the page, capturing everyone with his magnetism. He’s rich, and almost handsome – but charming, and with enough sex appeal to seduce everyone he meets. Matilde is a strange beauty, mysterious and managerial, and it’s hard to tell if it’s out of devotion or obsession.
The first section of the novel is titled Fates. We hear the story from Lotto’s perspective, and he is indeed the hero of the story, the center of his own universe. He grows from adored son to big man on campus, struggling actor to world class playwright. Through Lotto, we see how lives are spun, measured and cut.
The second section is called Furies. This is Matilde’s show, all the way, and she is full of rage. Her story parallels Lottos’, but the differences will shock you. Parties that were lighthearted fun turn into thinly veiled hostile jousting matches. Friends are betrayers, parents fail, and Matilde makes her way in a world that doesn’t even want to acknowledge her – until she throws her lot in with Lotto.
The unadulterated rage is spectacular.
Groff uses a lot of allusion to Greek stories – fates and furies, most obviously – but the stories of Oedipus as well. And throughout the novel, a chorus comments on events, or adds details. There’s a ton of references, Greek, Homeric, and Shakespearean, to sort through, and I am sure I did not catch them all. The references add to the multi layered and epic, consequential feeling of this story. Like Odysseus and Penelope, Oedipus and Jocasta, the hidden parts of the Lotto and Matilde’s marriage are monumental.
So why do I feel that this novel is almost, but less than perfect? Well, mainly because while Lotto is the golden boy, sucking everyone in, I wasn’t charmed. He’s interesting in his narcissism, but ultimately, I didn’t care about him. And Matilde is much the same. Rather than having sympathy for the utterly horrible way her childhood played out, I read these scenes dispassionately, not feeling a strong sense of empathy for her. I wish I had felt more empathy for these characters.
Groff’s writing is astounding. Sentences loop around and amaze you with their beauty:
He was joking; he believed what he was saying. He thought of how the world without humans would be more briliant, greener, teeming with strange life, rats with opposable thumbs, monkeys in spectacles, mutant fish building palaces below the sea. How, in the grand scheme of things, it would be better without human witness anyway. (Fates and Furies, p.78)
Also impressive to read are the excerpts of Lotto’s plays. Groff has created a breathing, living character with creations of his own. And they are terrific – I would love to read more.
Fates and Furies is a compelling, layered story written in language that sings. Groff’s characters have secrets that keep you reading, even when they are not particularly likeable.