I cannot think of anyone better suited to dissect the incredibly frustrating saying “behind every great man is a great woman” than Lauren Groff, a writer whose turns of phrase are so melodic and lyrical they border on hypnotic. Without Groff’s eloquence and insight, Fates and Furies would be a particularly brutal novel, revolving around a seemingly perfect and yet impossibly complicated marriage between two tall, ethereally beautiful people.
Mathilde and Lancelot “Lotto” Slatterwhite are college sweethearts. Lotto, who comes from a privileged background, is the more simplistic, idealistic and easily understood of the two, while his wife, Mathilde, is a much more restrained and complex character. On the outside their relationship looks perfect. Lotto, a successful playwright, makes enough money to sustain them, and Mathilde is an unparalleled domestic goddess. Together they’ve overcome poverty and heartache and terrible loss, and have somehow managed to keep their passionate love alive.
And yet all is not as it seems. Groff divides the couples’ love story into two parts: the fates and the furies. The former, is told from Lotto’s perspective, because for him each turn of events is blessed by fate. The success he has achieved and praise he has garnered are less the result of hard work and more due to the destiny of a rich, white boy turning into a successful, white man:
“This peaceful sleep of being born male and rich and white and American and at this prosperous time, when the wars that were happening were far from home. This boy, told from the first moment he was born that he could do what he wanted. All he needed was to try. Mess up over and over, and everyone would wait until he got it right.”
Through Lotto we see over two decades of love, marriage and mostly happy life, only to have the entirety of the story retold from Mathilde’s point of view, which Groff refers to as “Furies”, for life has not been so kind to the successful white man’s wife. From Mathilde we learn that Lotto’s success was not purely of his own doing, and that the great woman standing behind this great man is actually a shrewd puppeteer in her own right.
“Up before Lotto rose a vision of himself as if attached to a hundred shining strings by his fingers, eyelids, toes, the muscles of his mouth. All the strings led to Mathilde’s pointer finger, and she moved it with the subtlest of twitches and made him dances.”
Think Gone Girl on the most elemental of levels. Strip away Gillian Flynn’s murderous thrills and what you have is Fates and Furies – a story of how one relationship can mean two completely different things to the parties involved in it. What sets it apart from Gone Girl is the fact that neither Lotto nor Mathilde are unreliable narrators. The differences in their accounts of the same marriage are not due to lies, but rather due to the different interpretations they have taken from the same experiences. Fates and Furies is a novel about mundanities, but in the most entertaining way possible, examining each comment and moment and conversation from both points of view.
Fates and Furies, like everything Groff does, is strong because of its execution. The premise, while interesting, is not what will keep you reading. It’s Groff’s way with words, her ability to turn a small, everyday moment into something truly special, that will keep you engrossed in every page. Under Groff’s brilliant analysis the smell of freshly cut grass becomes the “olfactory screams of the plants.” Clouds become the “golden cattle of the sun.” Even in its darkest moments, Fates and Furies is a thing of beauty.
Groff perfectly captures what the nuances of romantic relationships – the small twists of the knife in one’s stomach and the constant battle between love and hatred. In four words she perfectly sums up the power of silence during an argument between lovers: “She said nothing, eloquently.”
Fates and Furies is a profoundly powerful and deeply moving novel about marriage. Filled with shocking twists, beautiful language, and original storytelling, it’s not a book you want to set aside for later.
You can read my review of Groff’s most recent short story collection, Florida, HERE.