I’ve seen quite a few mixed reviews of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies and wasn’t so very keen to read it but I got curious about it and had to find out for myself whether it was brilliant or so-so or terrible. It seems that many people don’t like the first half but those who stick with it and get to the second half end up liking that part better. So I began reading with low expectations. Perhaps it was this that helped me fall into the book, I don’t know, but I certainly didn’t struggle to read it or like it. In the end, I didn’t find the book brilliant but I did like it very much.
The story is that of a marriage told from both sides. The first part is told from Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite’s point of view. He grew up in Florida in a wealthy family, his father, Gawain, having made a fortune selling bottled water. But his father died young and left Lotto and his sister to the care of an increasingly distant yet controlling mother and Aunt Sallie who ran the household. Left to run wild, Lotto turned to sex and drugs and alcohol and when his mother found out, she sent him away to an all-boys boarding school. There he had few friends, but this bright, very tall boy discovered the joys of Shakespeare and determined to go off to college and become an actor.
Near the end of his senior year of college he met Mathilde, statuesque, beautiful, smart. The charismatic Lotto gave up seducing women and decided to marry Mathilde. He believed her to be pure and because she was pure he considered her his savior. He failed in the real world as an actor but in a dark night of the soul moment, discovered he had a talent for writing plays. Soon he became a famous playwright and grew wealthy in the process. Until his mother died, he saw not a penny of his inheritance because she was so angry he had married without her permission that she cut him off financially.
In spite of his profligate sex life pre-marriage, he remained loyal to Mathilde throughout, forever worrying that this pure, saintly woman would leave him:
If she was happy, it meant she wouldn’t leave him; and it had become painfully apparent over their short marriage that he was not worth the salt she sweated. The woman was a saint. She saved, fretted, somehow paid their bills when he brought in nothing.
Mathilde, of course, was no saint. Because of a terrible family tragedy when she was a very young girl, her parents basically abandoned her. They shipped her off to a grandmother who didn’t want her and who then shipped her off to another grandmother who made her sleep in a closet. Mathilde was French, born Aurelie, and when she was a teenager she was shipped off to her uncle’s house. He lived in the United States and left her to raise herself. He was wealthy, however, so she was never wanting for anything but attention. Unable to make friends at school, she became Mathilde, a girl who was angry and hard, who would not let the world take advantage of her, and who was very, very lonely.
She was also terrified of Lotto abandoning her like everyone else in her life did. She never talked about certain parts of her life:
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.
Any husband paying attention might wonder what she was hiding, but that is one advantage to being married to a charismatic, rather self-absorbed man. She did quite a few things he was never even aware of not least of which was edit his plays to make them better. And how she managed to hide the ongoing and ferocious war between her and Lotto’s mother without Lotto once suspecting a thing is beyond me.
As much as they both feared the other leaving them, in the end Lotto does leave Mathilde by an untimely death. She is devastated and her grief at losing her husband and once again being left is uncomfortable reading as well as heartbreaking.
I thought the book’s structure worked really well with clueless Lotto in the first half of the book and revelation after revelation from Mathilde’s part of the book. Still, as much as Mathilde knew and kept secret, Lotto had secrets too, though certainly not of Mathilde’s caliber. I liked getting both sides of the story and seeing how each one created and navigated their marriage. It is a more complete picture than we would ever get in a real life marriage and I found the completeness satisfying. From the outside, one would think their marriage would never work, and some of their friends even took bets on how long it would be before they were divorced and some, even after the pair had been married for years, tried to sabotage the relationship. The ending with an elderly Mathilde reflecting back on her marriage made me a little teary.
Contributing to my enjoyment of this book was a personal connection. Mathilde and Lotto were married at the age of twenty-two ( I was twenty-three when Bookman and I got married) and they married a year before my own wedding. So in many ways it felt like I was reading the story of a couple I might have known, except of course I didn’t and wouldn’t have known them if they were real, they not being the sort I would generally be friends with. Nonetheless, there was a certain happy friction, a bit of voyeurism and self-satisfaction regarding my own good fortune that smoothed away some of the annoying bits about the book (like the bracketed narrative intrusions, what the heck were those about?).
I’d like to say wow, you should read this book, but it isn’t that sort of book. I think it is one that will appeal to many, be enjoyed by some, and really liked by a few. Which one of those you might be, you’ll have to decide for yourself.