I read Fates And Furies in a day. I meant to read maybe a chapter or two, but I read all the way though until nearly midnight, and then lay in bed staring at the dark ceiling for another hour, mulling over what I had read, where it had taken me, and what to think of it all.
I should have known. Lauren Groff is a gorgeous writer, a New York Times-bestselling author, a winner of numerous awards and prizes, praised by critics and writers alike. And from the first time we meet the main characters there is a sense of difference, felt from only a few sketched details: “She was fair and sharp in a green bikini, though it was May in Maine and cold. He was tall, vivid; a light flickered in him that caught the eye and held it. Their names were Lotto and Mathilde.” A few lines later we learn that they are “young, twenty-two, and they had been married that morning, in secret.” My eye—and attention—was immediately caught and held.
But even in this romantic beginning—young love, a secret marriage—there is a sliver of something almost threatening. Lotto teases Mathilde that she is now his and his alone but she stops him: “Nobody belongs to anybody. We’ve done something bigger. It’s new.” Lotto smiles and says she’s right, but between “his skin and hers, there was the smallest of spaces, barely enough for air… Even still, a third person, their marriage, had slid in.”
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How does marriage change a couple? How does it both protect and threaten them? Can any two people in a marriage really know each other? Can people know themselves? The rest of the book tries to answer these questions as it tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s 24-year marriage.
The first half of the book, “Fates,” is told from Lotto’s perspective. We move back in time to read about his parents—Gawain, head of a bottled water empire, and Antoinette, a former Weeki Wachee mermaid—and the mythology of Lotto’s birth. His given name is Lancelot—hardly a surprise given the culturally loaded names of his parents—but he quickly acquires the nickname Lotto. There isn’t an Arthur involved but there is a Gwennie, and an epic sex scene between them, which involves, at its climax, jumping out the window of a burning building. It is this act that exiles him from Florida and sends him to a boarding school in New Hampshire. Here he learns, among other things, a love of acting, which sends him to Vassar, which brings him to Mathilde. Their first meeting is also epic: High off his last performance as Hamlet, still in his makeup, shirtless and dancing at his cast party, he sees her across the room, “strong and bright… She was dripping from walking through the rain. He loved her first for the stun of her across this thump and dance.” He falls to his knees in front of her and shouts up, “Marry me!” And he gets her answer, as well as a glimpse into their future:
[She] said something, her voice drowned. Lotto read those gorgeous lips as saying, “Yes.” He’d tell that story dozens of times… Mathilde watching him from across the table, unreadable. Every time he told the story, he would say that she’d said “Sure.”
Sure. Yes. One door closed behind him. Another, better, flung open.
If that’s not fate, what is? But a marriage is longer than a party, longer than a cold walk on the beach. And even though it is clear that Lotto and Mathilde love each other, reality can’t help but encroach on the myth.
After college, Lotto struggles as an actor and Mathilde struggles to support him, both financially and artistically. As he ages, he finds that “he could no longer count on his charm, which had faded… People could look away from him these days. For so long, he had thought it was just a switch he could flick. But he had lost it, his mojo, his juju, his radiance.” Mathilde watches him with worried eyes, until the morning after one drunken night she discovers his “true talent … [his] genius … [his] new life.” “Thank fucking god we figured that out,” she says. We. Not just him or her but we. And Lotto gratefully moves “toward what, just now, only Mathilde could see so clearly.”
Most of the time he is grateful to her both as a wife and a collaborator. But sometimes he sees himself as Mathilde’s puppet. After 18 years of marriage, he takes her for granted, and “that meant that wife occurred to him before Mathilde, helpmeet before herself.” But then in a moment of clarity he sees the “the dark whip at the center of her. How, so gently, she flicked it and kept him spinning.”
There are other ups and downs to their relationship—artistic triumphs and failures, a debilitating injury, a separation when Lotto goes to an artists’ colony, and then a terrible secret revealed and fatally misunderstood. But Mathilde remains something of a mystery—until the second half of the novel, “Furies.”
A Fury in Greek mythology is a spirit or goddess of punishment, stinging her targets with pangs of conscience or worse. But a Fury can also motivate, and in “Fates” Mathilde was Lotto’s muse. But now we learn Mathilde’s story—not only where she came from, but what she thought as she met Lotto, married him, supported him and, we now know, doubted him. There are too many surprising twists and turns to reveal here, but near the end of “Furies” there are mythological echoes of The Tempest, in which Lotto had once played Ferdinand; there is an Ariel; there are storms and shipwrecks both real and metaphorical.
Who was Mathilde really? Who was Lotto? By the time I finished the book and turned out the light I thought I knew—mostly. But I couldn’t stop thinking about these two people, starting out so young and fresh and bright, climbing the heights and falling hard, picking themselves up and trying again, loving each other first passionately and then doggedly, all while remaining faintly uneasy about who the other was. But perhaps that is the “paradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely; you do know someone entirely.” Reading this book will leave you both satisfied and wondering, reassured and unsettled. It’s a book to read in a day, and then stay up half the night thinking about, and then, later, read again.