Fates and Furies

Are The Gods Really Crazy?

Fates and Furies Cover ImageLauren Groff, no newbie, hit the literary world in a—pardon us—fury with this novel about a long-term marriage. In Part One, “Fates,” Lotto has the stage (you’ll have to pardon us for that one too: he’s a playwright). In Part Two, “Furies,” Mathilde is given the floor. In a relationship marked by fidelity, Groff explores the nuances of marriage, what it means to know one another, and how our histories affect our lives. The two perspectives add a surprisingly new twist to the possibly overwrought and overdone topic of marriage in literature. With strong literary and mythological allusions throughout, from title to character names, philosophical questions persist: How much of life is due to chance-happening? Or is our path determined by master(s) of our fate, those who carve and shape the lives we lead? Are we in the hands of an angry god/goddess? Are we surrounded by furies, doling out a justice about which we know nothing? Who is in control here?

Lara: So, this is the third time I am officially talking about this book. My book club, The Book Babes, read it this month. A community book club hosted by my favorite local indie bookstore (Changing Hands in Phoenix) read it this month. And Snotty Literati is reviewing it now. I didn’t actually read it three times, but man, I could. It’s so good.

Jennifer: Well, I began this book with super high expectations, because I’ve read her other stuff (Delicate Edible Birds was a favorite) and Groff had publicly made the point (or others kept making the point) that she very deliberately wrote about a marriage in which the couple remains faithful to one another. In the intro, you wrote (I didn’t) that the topic of marriage is overwrought and overdone in literature (I added “possibly”). That she wrote about fidelity is, amazingly, novel! Troubled marriages in literature are marriages that involve cheating. But Groff says, There are other kinds of trouble, folks! So, high expectations. Then, at one point, I really didn’t think that I liked the book. I didn’t like these people. (Which raises an interesting question: Is it okay to not like the protagonist?) But I kept reading. And then I was blown away. Groff blew me away with her complexity. The quality of the writing was never an issue—the writing is great from the beginning. But, by the end, I found the whole thing amazing.

 Lara: Yes! It is amazing. And, that topic comes up a lot in my book club . . . the idea that if you don’t like the characters, you don’t like the book (their words, not mine). The reality is there are a lot of unlikeable people in the world, but I still like living. And I like reading their stories.

Let’s start with the book’s structure. It’s told in two sections: the first, “Fates,” centers around Lotto and his view of the world and their marriage, while the second, “Furies,” centers around Mathilde’s view. From the beginning and, actually, from both of their perspectives, Lotto is fated for greatness. He is a golden child, first-born of the beautiful theme-park mermaid performer, Antoinette, and a water bottle-baron father, Gawain. Named Lancelot, after the greatest of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, he is like royalty.

“It was taken for granted by this trio of adults that Lotto was special.”

The trio being Gawain, Antoinette, and Lotto’s Aunt Sally.

But tragedy strikes. Gawain suffers an aneurysm. Antoinette spirals into a downward depression and some monster-eating. Lotto develops acne, loses his virginity on a roof as the house below catches fire, and then is exiled to New York to finish high school. Eventually, he goes to Vassar and studies theatre. He sleeps with everyone. And then he meets Mathilde.

 Jennifer: Well, yes. Things happen. They marry. They stay together. When Lotto fails at being a successful actor, he turns to playwriting. He’s a hit. He becomes super famous. The marriage keeps going. More things happen. It almost looks like he’s going to have an affair with a musician, but it doesn’t happen. They still stay married. There are no children. He’s told that his beautiful wife—with whom he has more sex than any married people I know (obviously no kids)—was someone’s mistress in the early years of their marriage. It’s not true. She never cheated on him. But this is what he believes until the conclusion. And, only after he hears of this false infidelity, do we hear Mathilde’s perspective. (The book is not divided into two first-person perspective sections; rather, it’s divided into two third person-limited perspective sections—with one focusing on Lotto and the other focusing on Mathilde. The stories do not repeat themselves, but rather build on each other.) The title is prophetic, emblematic. Perhaps Lotto’s name isn’t merely a derivative of Lancelot; maybe, it’s also hinting at the lottery. Fate is unruly, unpredictable. The toss of a coin. The whim of fickle gods. His wife’s section is called Furies. Gods of vengeance? The furies mete out justice? Do the furies balance out fate?

When we find out Mathilde’s story, everything changes.

Lara: Boy, does it! You know, the two sections are so differently written. “Fates” is written very romantically. The language is eloquent. Reading it is like watching a Barbara Walter’s special where a soft lens is used to project glowing images of celebrities, smoothing out their rough edges. “Furies” is like a reality TV show where “Shit just got real, yo.” It’s an episode of Cops, where the officer is tapping on the glass and the two meth-heads are scrambling to put their clothes on. All of it was rather exhilarating. That said, I have heard a number of readers say they didn’t like the book until they got to “Furies.” I would argue that you had to have “Fates” to have “Furies,” and it wouldn’t have worked as well if you alternated the perspectives throughout or only had one perspective. What do you think about that?

Jennifer: Well, hmm. I’m at a short loss for words. Wait! Hold your breath! It’s over!

I think I was the opposite of those readers. I mentioned my high expectations. I can’t really tell you what I expected, but I think I was a little taken up by the soft-focus of Lotto’s version, and I didn’t love it when I found out it was all ruse when we see Mathilde’s story unfold. And then I loved it again when I saw what a master Groff is in writing this way.

But I think Mathilde stressed me out. Which sounds so weird. (We don’t use this place as a forum to plug my writing, but this is relevant. I’m working on a novel—right now—about marriage, which may or may not involve infidelity; first, I got nervous that Groff might be writing the same story as I’m writing—but she’d do it better, and, then, when I realized it was another story altogether, I got a little freaked out by how, um, diabolical Mathilde is. I know everyone keeps pointing to Lotto’s narcissism (and I’m, like, Aren’t all writers narcissists? It’s not that bad), but I was stung by Mathilde’s secret darkness.

None of this answers your question. Yes, of course, both parts are necessary—in that order. Initially, it needs to be seen through rose-colored lenses. Only after that are we ready for the underbelly of a good marriage. And, guys, it kinda is a good marriage, despite the fates and furies at war.

I should say that, though I found Mathilde diabolical, it’s not without justification. The girl’s had it bad. Her history is miserable.

And, ultimately, Groff reveals that marriage is often wrought with secrets, unknowns. One fascinating aspect of this novel is that it’s Lotto who is unaware of the truth about his own marriage.

Lara: Both parts were definitely needed, in the order they were written. While Lotto’s story is all glossy head-shots, Mathilde’s is harsh lighting with every blemish on display. At four, she loses her baby brother and her parents can’t deal. She’s cast away for much of her life by people who are supposed to be there for her. In the end, which is actually way before the end, Mathilde finds a sense of home in Lotto. That’s why they work so well together. She’s fiercely protective of him, he adores her, and sex is their salve for any misgivings or problems, as well as their lazy Sunday afternoon extracurricular activity.

Lotto’s view of his marriage is parties, acting, drinking, and lovemaking; Mathilde bears the reality of working a steady job, because Lotto has been cut off by his wealthy mother, Antoinette. She pays the bills, and runs the household. When Lotto’s acting talents prove lackluster, it’s Mathilde who pushes him to write and starts, behind the scenes, to create a Lotto that’s not only worthy of her, but of the world.

All the while, I never got the sense that Lotto delved into the many layers of Mathilde. And by not doing so, Mathilde remained a mystery to him. You know, I wasn’t sure that I bought that promiscuous Lotto could remain faithful in a twenty-five-year marriage. But, a married man in the community book club discussion said: it was exactly why Lotto was faithful for the long haul; she was mysterious.

I think men need mystery. Women, not so much. Nonetheless, Mathilde is a fascinating character. Lotto is a romantic simpleton. In fact, both aren’t very likeable, but they are utterly perfect for one another and they make for good reading.

Jennifer: Sure, I do think readers will often wonder if a one-time promiscuous man can ever remain faithful. But that is a good point: she forever remained a mystery to him. Though one might note: he never seemed to delve that deeply into the mystery of Mathilde.

Let’s just give our opinion on the other issue right now: Is it okay for the protagonist(s) to be unlikeable? I’d say that it’s fine—as long as they’re fully human, which means that an unlikeable protagonist is also, at times, likeable—at times, okay. Lotto is admirable, if you ask me, in his devotion to his wife, however blind his love might be. And Mathilde is most certainly injured; her behind-the-scenes terrorism is also part of a genuine love for Lotto. She protects him as much as he protects her. Lotto relieves her of her homelessness, to which you refer. Mathilde makes him pretty much a star. She fashions an artist out of him.

Lara: Yes. And as diabolical as Mathilde may be, her devotion to Lotto is admirable. As is his to her. But they aren’t without their flaws and deceits—of which there are many. Antoinette says at one point:

“Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly.”

Would you agree with this?

Jennifer: No, I would not! Ha! It’s a pretty quote, though. This one might be better:

“It was mathematical, marriage. Not, as one might expect, additional. It was exponential.”

And this:

“Paradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely; you do know someone entirely.”

I think this is the thing: no one knows the truth about a marriage except for those in it. The scope of Mathilde’s behind-the-scenes control is a little overblown, unrealistic. I’m not sure any one person can orchestrate a twenty-five-year-long marriage like she does (it was twenty-five years?)—though my disbelief is fully suspended because of Lotto’s own ignorance.

There are so many things to discuss here. The novel is smart, literary, sometimes over my head in a good way. I’m sure I would get even more layers of meaning if I grasped all the references to mythology. How did you feel about the way Groff includes excerpts of Lotto’s plays (which are often satires or parodies or new takes on plays from ancient Greece)?

Lara: I would agree with the statement on kind lies. Unfortunately, I don’t agree that all of Mathilde’s lies were little or kind (others will just have to read the book to find out which ones I am referring to). But, they made her all the more complex.

Now as for the plays . . . Oh, geez. I don’t know. It felt a little artsy-fartsy for the sake of it. But maybe I would feel differently about them if I had a greater education in Greek mythology. Another interesting device Groff uses are the bracketed asides or commentary during Lotto’s section. What did you make of those? Whose voice or perspective was that supposed to be?

Jennifer: Oh no. I think we’re moving into the territory in which we admit to how we feel dumb about stuff. First, you CANNOT use the phrase or whatever it is, artsy-fartsy. I associate it with the summer I lived in California when I was in my early, early twenties—and my friend Scott was dating this girl who referred to a dolphin show at Knott’s Berry Farms as “artsy-fartsy”—and I was all, like, if you think that’s artsy-fartsy, I guess discussing Picasso is out.

So you say artsy-fartsy, I think dolphin show at Knott’s Berry Farms. And Scott Hyder. His name is Scott Hyder.

But I didn’t find the allusions, the literary references (Gawain, Antigone, et al.), to be too much. Just smart. The plays were a tad distracting, but maybe necessary?

And I’m an idiot of my own kind, though, because I have no clue what those brackets meant. You?

Lara: Well, I’ve heard several thoughts, thanks to the audio book club review on Slate.com and some other conversations about the novel. Some think it’s a Greek chorus chiming in. A friend of mine thinks it’s Mathilde’s editorial commentary . . . since she did edit Lotto’s plays (and that’s as spoily as we are going to get). The more I think about it, I think the whole thing could be a book within a book, and that Groff wrote both sections as Mathilde. So, while “Fates” is Lotto’s section, Mathilde wrote it in his romanticized view and the brackets are her chances to chime in. But honestly, I don’t know. I want to read it again; and I never want to read books again.

Jennifer: I know, no spoilers. But this. You didn’t fully explain the situation with Mathilde’s mysterious childhood. Her parents abandon her when her baby brother accidentally falls down the stairs and dies—with Mathilde, at four, on the top of the stairs. They cast her off because they can’t deal with the idea that she might’ve been involved. Later, towards the end of the novel, when Mathilde is pondering this, I found Groff to be at her best: revealing how the subtleties of one thing lead to another. I really loved how this childhood memory reverberated throughout her whole life.

You know what? I just remembered the moment I almost lost it in the book: when Mathilde gets rid of her dog. That’s when I texted you and said I wasn’t sure I could review this book. But that, too, is significant in who Mathilde is.

Lara: Oh my God. The dog broke my heart. It was a defining moment that was completely in line with Mathilde’s character. Many in my book club thought Mathilde was calculating and evil . . . I don’t buy it. Calculating, yes! Even manipulating. But I really don’t think she was evil. Certainly fascinating. There really is so much to this book that there’s no way we can cover it all, and it wouldn’t be fair of us to do so. New readers deserve the chance to uncover the layers of Mathilde and her marriage to Lotto the way we were able to.

Jennifer: The uncovering is amazing. I’d love to talk to Groff about it. How many drafts did this go through? What did you originally plan to happen and how does it compare to what happened? Tell me about all these literary allusions. Tell me the significance of fates, of furies.

Listen to this. Denton Thrasher, Lotto’s high school drama teacher, tells Lotto the following:

“Storytelling is a landscape, and tragedy is comedy is drama. It simply depends on how you frame what you’re seeing.”

Groff proves this true—and I love this idea, because tragedy is comedy (tangent: that’s why I love The Onion). Lotto and Mathilde share a story, but it’s different—depending on perspective. Both are, in unique ways, delusional. Lotto is self-aggrandizing: he’s strangely unaware of this woman with whom he spends his life. Mathilde tricks others. She is, in truth, a kind of powerhouse. I’d be scared to mess with her.

In conclusion—and there’s way more to say—the language is always beautiful. Writing chops ablaze.

Groff is bravely traversing a landscape of human intimacy: the secrets of sustaining it, our ability to really have it, the possible farce of it, the inevitable isolation which might plague each of us, and the ways our histories shape our fates.

Next Up!

In February, we will discuss Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being Woman because we are starting to become women that are concerned about their necks.


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Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at www.jenniferspiegel.com 

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  1. Deirdre February 1, 2016 at 11:39 am - Reply

    Definitely sold me—now I want to read it!

  2. Lara February 1, 2016 at 5:29 pm - Reply

    Deirdre! Definitely report back. We want to know what you think!

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