If you’ve heard about Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, you know it comes loaded with a lot of hype. For instance, the Goodreads summary lauds it in this way:
Fates and Furies is a literary masterpiece that defies expectation. A dazzling examination of a marriage, it is also a portrait of creative partnership written by one of the best writers of her generation. Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years. At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed. With stunning revelations and multiple threads, and in prose that is vibrantly alive and original, Groff delivers a deeply satisfying novel about love, art, creativity, and power that is unlike anything that has come before it. Profound, surprising, propulsive, and emotionally riveting, it stirs both the mind and the heart.
I mean, that’s a lot of acclaim stuffed into 183 words. Groff’s other novels have received high praise as well, but this was the first of her books that I’ve picked up. I’m not sure if the hype surrounding the book helped or hurt my impression of it, but this is the story of how I came to love Fates and Furies.
Let me start by saying that I had the wrong idea going into things. My library misclassified Fates and Furies as “Magical Realism” — which I believe to be wholly inaccurate. The events of the novel are completely improbable, but there’s no magic to it at all.
As stated above, Fates and Furies is about the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde. It is divided into two parts, not surprisingly named: “Fates” and “Furies.” The first half of the novel stays close to Lotto’s point of view, putting the sum of his life in terms of his relationship to women, particularly Mathilde. The second half, “Furies,” is Mathilde’s story. Groff’s talent is that she is able to portray human beings in uncomfortably accurate detail. Though the events of Lotto and Mathilde’s separate and combined lives are impossibly improbable, they feel painfully real. And it’s for this reason that I almost hated this book.
After almost two years of reading books by women authors almost exclusively, I’ve grown used to reading female driven texts. Not many of the books I’ve read follow a man’s perspective quite as closely as Fates and Furies does. I don’t want to think that I didn’t like “Fates” because I don’t care for male-driven texts (even when they are written by women), but I think that after reading so many texts with female protagonists it was jarring to be asked to think of things from a male perspective. I will admit that I disliked Lotto intensely from the start, and I came to a point where the book almost ended up in the “Did Not Finish/Will Never Finish” pile. I hung in because Groff’s prose is beautiful and the pacing makes you feel a bit like you’re being chased by wild horses (that is a good thing, in my opinion). What I’m saying is: I wasn’t liking the story a whole lot, but it was moving quickly, so I stuck with it.
And then came the second half.
In all the ways that the first half repelled me, “Furies” attracted me. Mathilde is calculating, with a kind of cold passion running in her veins that I found mesmerizing. Through her eyes, I understood why Lotto existed in the space of the story. He was wholly unspecial, but she was something else entirely. I love difficult female protagonists. So many times when a female protagonist is likable, it’s because she has been flattened into something palatable.
Mathilde should be unlikable in almost every way, but I loved her. Her secrets, her scheming, her manipulative nature… when the real Mathilde was revealed I loved it all. This is the genius of the novel: I didn’t love her from Lotto’s perspective, even though he adored her. It was only when I was able to understand her for herself and not her relationship to Lotto that I truly began to like her.
This is how I came to love this book. Any woman who has had even the smallest brush with having her experience co-opted by a man and then celebrated from his perspective will deeply understand this book. Lotto is an average person for whom all doors easily open, mostly because the women in his life (his awful mother included) are busily hacking away at the obstacles in front of them before he even bothers to show up. Mathilde, who cannot bear to love herself, loves Lotto and though he believes he loves her back, at the end of Fates and Furies, it’s hard not to believe that Lotto was the true beneficiary of their love.
It’s amazing to me that Groff manages to write this self-sacrifice without a hint of passive aggressive martyrdom. This is not the story of the saintly woman behind the man, though I sure thought it might be from the first half of the book. This is the story of how that perspective is created and controlled, primarily by men. The fact that Mathilde (as a character) can have given herself over wholesale to loving this one, rather undeserving person, and still not be portrayed as the flattened saint we’ve come to expect from narratives such as this is something that deserves to be called “a literary masterpiece that defies expectation.”
If you’ve been looking for something to break you out of a rut, this might be for you. While I would agree that this is a “literary” text, it’s highly readable. I zoomed through it in under 72 hours and though it gave my brain a workout, it didn’t twist it up too much. Even if literary/upmarket fiction isn’t normally your thing, you should give this one a shot. Come back and tell me what you thought.
Allison Carr Waechter is headed back to the forest of her youth. She’s calling it research for her novel, but it’s really a chance to soak in the unparalleled blue of the Colorado sky and hug her mom.