Lotto and Mathilde marry young. For Lotto, a struggling actor in New York, their marriage is a small miracle; not only was his strikingly beautiful wife a virgin until shortly before they wed, she uncomplainingly supports him by working at an art gallery while he brings in little more than $700 a year. Mathilde may be a bit of a cipher, but Lotto would be lost without her, even when – or especially when – he embarks upon a more successful career as a playwright. But what has his wife really been thinking all these years?
Examining both sides of the story of a long marriage, this novel, bifurcated into two halves and two points of view, is in many ways retreading very old ground. I certainly felt as if I’d read the ‘struggling artist tries to make it in New York after college graduation’ aspect of the plot many times before, and I unfortunately read Fates and Furies immediately after Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which blew it out of the water. Nevertheless, I still felt that Lauren Groff wove interesting insights into these parallel tales, highlighting the myth of the subservient, deferent wife while still emphasising the lasting love between Lotto and Mathilde.
This novel has clearly split opinion, and I agree with many of the points made on both sides. I loved Groff’s debut, The Monsters of Templeton, because it was genuinely quirky and magical – making inventive use of photographs and scrapbook cuttings, and cleverly told in a voice that was not too complex or too simple. Like some other reviewers, I did not feel that she used language as well in Fates and Furies, and the prose threatens to overpower the story at certain points, although there are still some wonderful passages, such as her description of Lotto’s mother’s, Antoinette’s, early employment as a ‘mermaid’. It’s fair to say, however, that I did not find this a barrier to enjoying the story as a whole, and I think that Groff tones down the conscious literariness of her writing throughout much of the narrative (the first few pages are some of the hardest to get through, even when re-reading!) Similarly, while the omniscient voice can be distancing, I felt attached to Lotto and Mathilde, despite their flaws, and wanted to find out what happened to them. At its best, the novel mixes quasi-mythical descriptions of place with true insight into its characters, achieving brief but intensely memorable moments.
While I enjoyed the novel, I can understand why it hasn’t been popular with some reviewers, and I think The Monsters of Templeton is a better place to start if you are new to Groff’s work. Nevertheless, if you can bear with the occasionally pretentious language, there is more than there seems to this story of a marriage.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher via Amazon Vine.