Written with literary flare, Groff’s Fates and Furies might well be the year’s most ambitious novel. While the book won’t be for all tastes, the narrative has style that reflects the fleeting pleasures of a marriage, revealing the fractured years of secrets and regrets that remain behind when one partner is emotionally unavailable and the other has returned to the relative safety of New York City. The marriage described is between Lotto and Mathilde, a fashionably, sexy couple who up until now have had a hurried and frantic courtship. Groff establishes “a unity marriage made of discrete parts”
where Lotto is “loud and full of light while Mathilde has a tendency to be “quiet and watchful.”
Lotto is quick to tell us that everything in his life has steadily built toward Mathilde,
the love of his life, yet it’s clear from the outset exactly how the road to love and hell will be paved.
begins with back story: in the humid landscapes of Central Florida, Lotto is born to Antoinette and Gawain.
It is taken for granted that this child of privilege will be special and golden.
In this tiny adult who is considered articulate and sunny, the world is revealed to itself. Lotto’s sorrow at losing his father is just one of many of the challenges that he will face in these early years, from the birth of his sister, Rachel, to his connection to Gwenie, the most interesting of his three new friends (readers should pay attention in these early sections as they have ramifications for later). Also pivotal is Chollie,
Lotto’s best friend, whose uncouthness, loneliness, and “innocent money hunger” remind Lotto of his father. It doesn’t take long for Antoinette to pack recalcitrant Lotto off to a boarding school in the cold New Hampshire gloom. With an ache in his gut, troubled and unhappy, Lotto recalls his childhood and Florida’s sunlight, “obscured in a blaze, impossible to see.”
Through Lotto and Mathilde, Groff infiltrates the world of Shakespearian drama and Greek tragedy with her own ideas about the nature of love, marriage, and age-old sexual attraction.
Her language and use of simile and metaphor sparkle with starkness--her heroine, Mathilde, both barren and plaintive, is at first driven by loyalty and lust for her husband, but because she is young, she’s unseasoned and uncertain and often speaks of a childhood overshadowed by abuse. For both of them,
that love begun so powerfully eventually spreads luxuriously into everything. Groff describes their attraction as beauty and abundance, and she spends many passages describing how Lotto and Mathilde
almost float away “on their own current.”
With Lotto’s sudden ascendancy to fame as a playwright (after a failed acting career), the perfect couple is in the headlines, a cause celebre for a Broadway hitmaker who is positive that his wife was a virgin when he married her. While their friends and relatives argue over Lotto’s fame--and Mathilde’s part in the drama--Lotto’s mother remains steadfast in her refusal to acknowledge Mathilde, more concerned with lapping up her son’s apparent narcissism: “He was Lancelot, with a sun blazing within him.” Motives change; mistakes are made; the politicizing of Lotto is questioned. The theater world snobbery is depicted with part pathos, part self-aggrandizement, part outrageousness. Anything goes as long as it titillates with splashy, avant-garde plays that make the headlines as well as oddball personages who parade about utilizing self-expression that sadly all seems the same. At the center of
everything is a marriage revealed to be made of lies--kind ones mostly--and Mathilde’s omissions.
Although I admired Groff’s literary dexterity, I can’t say I particularly liked the novel, or any of her characters. From grotesque Chollie, “gone bad with money, like a pear ripened to ooze,” to ‘the wolf’ that spins and settles in Mathilde’s chest, along with her secret that Lotto will never know, to the grandness of Lotto’s vision as a playwright, the novel is about a marriage that seems to have always been about sex. In the second half, Mathilde relates the same sense of discomfiture in the presence of those more experienced. Her inability to speak at times marks her as uncertain, sexually fixated, and ultimately unsatisfied.
The novel’s final pages reveal that Mathilde has been hiding a betrayal of wholly believable intricacy. And we finally get to discover the things she had done for Lotto, the sacrifices she has made and the horrors she has endured for his sake. While both Mathilde and Lotto’s actions are distressingly human throughout the story, other forces are awakened that are inexplicable and menacing. The question is whether Groff is able to make us really believe in their marriage. Perhaps this is true for some readers but not for others.