I don’t know how I was so slow off the mark with this one, because it’s probably one of my favourites and most memorable this year.
Anything that features any element of classical history is a win and stories that have hidden truths are some of my best-loved novels. I remember them long after I’ve turned the last page. .
I read that this was Obama’s book of the year, that intrigued me to say the least! This was probably recommended to me by someone very wise, and I’m glad they did. So thanks, whoever you are!
In Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, the course of a 24-year marriage is unravelled and the distance between the two tellings exposed.
Lotto and Mathilde are twenty-two when they meet as Vassar undergraduates and quickly marry before embarking on a life as enamoured newlyweds in New York.
The groom is a young heir and aspiring actor who has so far lived a more-or-less charmed life, apart from the tragic loss of his father at a young age. Short for Lancelot, Lotto is a likeable if naive prince, perfect to introduce us to the tale of his and Mathilde’s promising life together.
Fates and Furies is split in two halves, the first narrated by Lotto and the backing of the Greek chorus remarking on the narrative of his life as he embarks on the first years of marriage with Mathilde, cut off from his family for his choice of wife and grand romance.
Mathilde is a tabula rasa to Lotto, with what seems to him the background of an abusive past with no family. He is all too happy to swoop in and rescue her, after which he will struggle as an actor while she works in a gallery to pay the bills and fund their bohemian lifestyle.
That is until one night when Lotto writes a play telling his family’s story while in a drunken stupor. Mathilde wakes him and tells him what will become ‘The Springs’ is a masterpiece. He has found his true calling and will become one the most celebrated dramatists of his generation.
They move to the country where Mathilde runs the house and manages her husband’s business affairs, and Lotto tells his friends how proud he is to have a wife who gave up her job to make his run more smoothly. He is our hero who succeeds and their marriage seems to be successful. But this is not a usual domestic novel, and Mathilde’s ‘Furies’ unveil so much of what has gone unnoticed by Lotto.
“Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband. What she did not tell him balanced neatly with what she did. Still, there are untruths made of words and untruths made of silences, and Mathilde had only ever lied to Lotto in what she never said.”
We trust Mathilde because Lotto does, and while failing to delve deeper into her past because of his complacent and trusting nature, he paints his wife as a saint because of her sacrifices for him. The reader comes to learn that the couple operate at completely opposite ends of the spectrum – Lotto is fundamentally truthful and has never had to be otherwise, while Mathilde keeps just about everything a secret.
While Groff’s writing can at times seem overdramatic and overcomposed in Lotto’s voice becomes completely believeable in Mathilde’s half of the novel, which takes on a fairytale element as she narrates her past.
However, Mathilde’s own repression and willpower is at times more interesting than the tale of what actually happened as she became the person who would meet and marry Lotto. What makes Lotto’s narration of his own story is that it makes his open and trusting character completely believable, the only way he would trust all that was presented to him in his existence.
Mathilde’s massive release brought round by a cataclysmic event will expose the two completely alternate views of the couple of what actually constituted their lives. One was a romance with ups and downs, the other was much darker in a modernist touch to an ancient story.
What do we give up in entering a marriage? What Lotto and Mathilde wanted and expected will become clear, but what also becomes clear is that theirs wasn’t some grand romance – but what you don’t know can’t hurt you.
In exquisite writing and everyday poetry, Groff delves into a misunderstanding at the centre of a marriage and asks whether truth or lies have more of an impact on the outcome.
Fates and Furies is published by Riverhead Books.