Fates and Furies, if a person was to read the back cover and take a guess at what it is about, appears, more than anything, to be a classic love story. Maybe there is some intrigue. Maybe someone is unfaithful. Maybe they are both unfaithful and that’s why it works. Maybe he is gay and she lets him do what he does on the side for the sake of their marriage. Maybe she is a lesbian who married by mistake but refuses to do something that would make him unhappy because, after all, she does love him. Once again, however, I have to scold the person who wrote the blurb on the back. It makes Fates and Furies into something it is not, namely a hyper-gendered, melodramatic romance novel. I cannot imagine the number of people that have turned down the opportunity to read it after being turned off by the sensationalized back cover. Well, before I go any further in this short explication, let me put it succinctly. Read this damn novel. It is good. Really good.
Fates and Furies is indeed about a marriage, but it is not a novel of marriage that is interested in taking marriage and making it scandalous in some way (See above). Instead it does something far more interesting. Lauren Groff takes two people and lays them bare, going into exuberant detail as to convey to her readers not only the characters of Lotto and Mathilde, but how both characters view one another. This is not a novel of an interesting marriage as much as it is a novel of how we need and hold on to our ideas of other people in order so that we may function as people. That to encounter the truth of someone is sometimes unbearable, and that what is hidden from view is often hidden for a reason. Yet the question Fates and Furies asks even more is whether or not these secret selves that we keep from even our closest loved ones can make us unlovable or even “bad.”
Far from a linear novel, Fates and Furies is split into two portions: Fates and (you guessed it) Furies. Fates is told predominantly from the perspective of the husband in our focal marriage, Lotto (a sobriquet for Lancelot). Lotto is a former evangelical who is shipped to an all boys school after he falls into a crowd that his overbearing mother disapproves of. Central to his story, and Groff deserves endless praise for this, are very male themes of over-attachment, the tendencies of men to view women as soteriological figures rather than flawed humans, and loneliness. While sculpted as a fully three-dimensional character, Lotto functions wonderfully as this vessel of familiar actions for a lot of men. He holds antiquated views despite loving a powerful woman, he wishes for purity in his wife, and he refuses to really interact with who she is, often making up stories about her past, a past that she does not offer up freely to him. Lotto, and I mean this in the best possible way, reads like a person who feels endlessly incomplete. And he tries to fill his incompleteness with an idea of his wife.
Likewise, Furies concerns itself fully with Mathilde and what she has withheld from Lotto and why she did it. Like Lotto, Mathilde is crafted to perfection, holding within her all elements of humanity, from the pure weakness found in total pettiness to the strength found in confident solitude. Mathilde is constantly struggling to live out of the shadow of Lotto, feeling compressed by the idea of being a wife, someone destined by history to be a background figure. What Groff places in her so extraordinarily is Mathilde’s ability to know what Lotto can and cannot handle. There is a strength of difference in her that seems to be only found in truly powerful women that I rarely read in novels. She oozes multitudes, functioning as an iconoclast to all female archetypes. She refuses to meet Lotto’s idea of her, and in this way she triumphs over the the entirety of the novel, even when, at times, one must ask whether or not she is simply beyond the pale in her actions.
Lotto and Mathilde hold, on top of the weight of their relationship, the rush of great plays, both tragedies and comedies. They and their friend’s names bring to mind Arthurian Knights and Shakespearean Drama, and this classicism combined with fresh modernity makes the novel an endless delight with almost no dull moments. We find Lotto in his plays (excerpts of which are littered throughout the pages of Fates and Furies) and we find Mathilde in her past. Yet somehow they meet in the middle and work, the reader constantly aware that they seem to know nothing about the other one. Each one functioning as the Sphinx’s riddle to the other; only after they solve it do they understand they didn’t really desire to.
Fates and Furies outstrips all expectations that can be put upon it. It captures the human condition and spirit so well that if one is paying attention, moving beyond the temptation to dismiss it as pretentious or condescending in its mode of being, they might find themselves changed in an eye-opening manner. It is a novel to shake the ground you walk upon.
Recommended to: This is a novel written in an almost obnoxious American literary voice. Its confidence in itself will attract some in the way that reading classics does, yet it will delight with breaks from its classic prose into opera and plays.
Avoid as if it is remembering that 2016 really happened: If you hate classics then you will not enjoy Fates and Furies, as it feels more like a classic than it does a contemporary novel.