Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

28th Sep 2015

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff’s excellent third novel, Fates and Furies, is an incisive study of a marriage, beautifully written and rich with allusions to Shakespeare and Greek mythology.

A May morning, a beach in Maine. Lancelot Satterwhite (nicknamed Lotto) and Mathilde Yoder are the perfect couple: tall, talented, and deeply in love. The twenty-two-year-olds eloped this very morning. It’s the early 1990s and the world is at their feet.

Yet from the start there is a sinister note, a suggestion that the fact of marriage will change them: “Between his skin and hers, there was the smallest of spaces … a third person, their marriage, had slid in.”

Lotto’s parents built a bottled water empire in Florida but sent him to a New England boarding school when he fell in with the wrong crowd. Mathilde never mentions her past; all anyone knows is a vague story of loss and neglect. It is as if she didn’t exist before she met Lotto at university and joined her fate to his.

“What’s it like? Marriage, I mean,” a friend asks at one of the Satterwhites’ famous parties. “A never-ending banquet, and you eat and eat and never get full,” Lotto declares.

Indeed, these two seem sexually insatiable, and in their years of penury – Lotto’s mother cut him off for marrying Mathilde – as he struggles to find acting work, love is all that sustains them.

All of a sudden Lotto’s career as a playwright takes off. Synopses of his plays mark the passage of time. Almost before we know it, the Satterwhites have been married 24 years. It is here, at the book’s halfway point, that Lotto learns a secret about Mathilde that completely changes how he thinks of her.

Part I was “Fates”; in Part II, “Furies,” we gradually find out what happened to Mathilde in the two decades before she met Lotto. Her dark story undermines Lotto’s vision of his wife as the saintly virgin who sacrificed herself for his career.

This background character now takes centre stage in a surprising tangle of revelations and revenge, as Groff takes the story you think you know about the central marriage and boldly picks it apart, filling in the backstory with carefully guarded secrets and misunderstandings.

Don’t expect a twisty thriller like Gone Girl, though; Fates and Furies is a consciously literary novel that requires more from the reader in terms of attention and memory, especially when it comes to piecing together Mathilde’s past.

Groff makes it onto the shortlist of women I expect to produce the Great American Novel.For instance, the book is saturated with mythical references. Names like Lancelot, Gawain and Roland evoke conquering knights, while Lotto’s plays adapt the stories of the Greek figures Antigone and Circe. Meanwhile, Groff questions fairytale stereotypes of romance.

Her writing is stunningly good. Short, verbless sentences pile up to create exquisite descriptions, as in “Sunset. House on the dunes like a sun-tossed conch. Pelicans thumb-tacked in the wind.”

However, I was less sure about the necessity of the occasional bracketed phrases, which seem to represent a sort of Greek chorus giving omniscient commentary, and the use of slang and nicknames can grate.

The early chapters reminded me most of The Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot (the college years), or even in places of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (Lotto’s Florida upbringing), but Fates and Furies remains an achievement all of its own.

This is a memorable and gorgeously written examination of a relationship, showing all its complexity and inevitable transformations over the years.

Groff makes it onto the shortlist of women I expect to produce the Great American Novel (along with Curtis Sittenfeld, Jennifer Egan, and Hanya Yanagihara). She’s that good.