Book review – Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Book Review – Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

A short while ago I posted a picture of my holiday reads, this novel among them. I got an equal number of ‘You’re going to love it’ and ‘You’re going to hate it’ from people whose opinions I respect equally.  Argh. The pressure.

This is a big book. Not as in lengthy (a reasonable 389 pages), but as in bursting. It is, at its swollen heart, a great and rending love story, a story of marriage (messy, betrayed, boundless) and the potholed roads on which it travels –  romantic, erotic, tragic, infuriating and lingering. Its plot as uneven as life, its cast as unpredictable and flawed and and unreasoned as, well, people are.

There is a large cast of characters, but really only two – the husband Lotto and his wife Mathilde.. Lotto has grown from a oversized, acne scarred and unhappy teenager (deposited by a controlling mother into a bullying prep school) into a tall, strong, beautiful Adonis – loved, talented and graced with charm, kindness and unfillable yearning for adulation. Young and at college he meets Mathilde, a 6 foot slip of unusual beauty, abandoned and insecure. And they fall instantly in love, moving to New York, he to seek success in theatre and she to seek herself. Their unruly ambitions and love for each other crest and crash against each other repeatedly, leaving the reader bruised and exhausted. And we follow them at uncomfortably and piercingly close quarters for many decades, their unspoken secrets and pasts slowly but determinedly creeping up on them like malevolent shadows.

The book is divided into two sections – their first 25 years (‘Fates’) and thereafter (‘Furies’) separated by a life-changing event which I won’t spoil. The first section is mainly Lotto’s perspective, his belated sterling career as playwright, his vaulting ambition, his endless love and lust for Mathilde. The second half, mainly Mathilde’s perspective, is her titanic battle between vengeance and kindness, careening dizzily between time frames as her best and worst selves wrestle for the next 40 or so years.

Groff’s writing is startling – a mere few words can leave the reader gasping. Her facility with phrase sentence, scene and the complexity of human emotion is like none I have ever read before (this is my first Groff). She is also intimidatingly erudite (this book is not for everyone – I felt deeply peasanted by some of the literary and theatrical references – Greek mythology anyone?). It also occasionally employs devices – first acts of disguised autobiograhical plays written by Lotto, play synopses masquerading as motive, even one section where the actual novel narrative is in its entirety embedded in the first act of a play. Normally this would annoy me, but there is something so unique in the way that this book is played out that makes it feels natural, necessary, wildly expository.

Oh, and the sex. Deep, near pornographic descriptions of their lovemaking. Usually I cringe, but in the hands of Groff, I became (how shall I say this?), um, titillated.

I really loved this book. I weep for Lott and Mathilde, their story tears at me still. I think Lauren Groff is a genius, likely beyond my reckoning. I will read everything she writes from now on. Highly recommended.