LAUREN GROFF’S latest novel, Fates and Furies, is awash with nods to ancient Greek and medieval European literature, but more subtly and also more essentially, Groff is engaged with America, the new world of naive optimists and cold-blooded strivers. Her ambitious project is to recast the “great American” writer’s story about himself by injecting into it the figure of the wife. Fates and Furies is a what-he-knew/what-she-knew portrait of a marriage in two parts: “Fates” (his) and “Furies” (hers). It is not a balanced portrait of a marriage — the wife’s vision gives Groff’s novel its heft — but balance is not the point. Fates and Furies is better than balanced; it is capacious, messy, and bold. Sometimes, the many undeveloped secondary characters and minor narrative threads seem unnecessary, especially as Groff resolves them, one after the other, in the novel’s very long dénouement. However, there is both pleasure and complexity in all this plotting.
Their senior year at Vassar, Lancelot and Mathilde meet and, two weeks later, marry. He is the tall, blond, charismatic son of a Floridian bottled-water magnate and a beautiful mother who believes from his birth that her son is destined for greatness (hence, his grandiose name). Mathilde is also tall, blond, and beautiful, but without family or friends. Mysterious and aloof, she is rumored to have a modeling career in New York. In response to their marriage, Lancelot’s controlling mother cuts him off. The couple moves to the city, where Lancelot tries and fails to be an actor, while Mathilde works first at a gallery and later at an internet dating site, somehow managing to earn enough income to keep them housed in their basement apartment. They have parties, tons of sex, and no children. Just when he belatedly admits to himself that his acting career has come to nothing, Lancelot writes a play and is heralded as the most important theatrical voice of his generation. She manages his career and his moods, their bills and their meals, and, as they become increasingly prosperous over the years, their real estate.
These are the outlines of their story, as told by Lancelot in his narrative, which begins the novel. Lancelot, who goes by Lotto, is an American straight out of Henry James — trusting, innocent, certain that the future belongs to him, and easy prey to his darker, more knowing European wife. When Mathilde first observes him, glorious sun-king of his college kegger, she thinks,
She had never in her life met such an innocent. In nearly everyone who ever lived there was at least one small splinter of evil. There was none in him […] His eagerness, his deep kindness, these were the benefits of his privilege. 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.
Innocence, however, has a sinister side. Like Fitzgerald’s “careless people” who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money […] and let other people clean up the mess they had made,” Lotto leaves behind wreckage without even noticing.
Yet, Lotto is also a creator, one to whom Mathilde attributes a grand vision. Despite the scope of Lotto’s oeuvre — his plays range in subject matter from boarding school to war, from Antigone to Eleanor of Aquitaine — the fragments of his plays that pepper “Fates” do not confirm that he is an important artist. He comes across as more blind than visionary, which may be less a flaw of characterization than a point Groff is making about the myopia of artists with grand visions. Whether because of egotism, kindness, laziness, or his creative mind’s enormous powers of projection, Lotto does not see what he does to people, nor does he see what they do to him. Most of all, he does not see his wife.
Lotto marries Mathilde believing she is “transparent, a plate of glass,” a virgin “belonging” all to him. His version of her flatters and serves them both, for different reasons, so he clings to it. After a decade and a half of marriage, he observes that “she lived in the deepest room in his heart. And sometimes that meant that wife occurred to him before Mathilde, helpmeet before herself. […] But not now. When she came across the veranda, he saw Mathilde all of a sudden. The dark whip at the center of her. How, so gently, she flicked it and kept him spinning.” Lotto, however, quickly turns away from his momentary insight and reverts to calling her “a saint. One of the purest people I’ve ever met. Just morally upright, never lies, can’t bear a fool,” citing as proof that she was a virgin when they met.
Lotto’s blind spots pose certain problems for the novel, not least of which is that “Fates” is, in the end, a pretty straightforward narrative. Reading it can, at times, be tedious; however, the pleasures of revisiting the events of the novel’s first part, when reading Mathilde’s more interesting version of the story in the novel’s second part, far outweigh the tedium. Groff addresses the limits imposed on part one by its unperceptive narrator by using little asides, ostensibly in the voice of the fates, to tip the reader off that the story is not as simple as it appears. These bits of commentary often seem unnecessary, like unwieldy, portentous stylistic tics. “This would be the pivot,” Groff flags one scene; the moment when Lotto first locks eyes with Mathilde is gratuitously labeled, “the fatal look up.” At times, such interjections read like notes that Groff has left in the text, at other times like anxious efforts to control the reader’s response. “For now, he’s the one we can’t look away from,” the fates narrator says near the beginning of Lancelot’s story, assuring readers that eventually, its gaze will turn to Mathilde.
Groff scatters declamatory truisms throughout the novel, particularly when concerning issues regarding gender. “The story we are told of women is not this one,” she alerts us. “Women in narratives were always defined by their relations,” thinks one ancillary character. Yet the same point is less cliché when conveyed from within the narrative: for instance, when, at an opening night party, Lotto “silently docked his head on her shoulder for two moments. Recharged, he turned to face the others.”
The most glaring feature of “Fates” is Mathilde’s near absence; it can only be that at some point she will take center stage, and indeed, the novel’s raison d’être is in the revelation of Mathilde’s actual identity. It will come as no surprise that she is not at all what Lotto thought. However, Lotto understands correctly that to remain delighted by his luck and secure in his destiny, he needs Mathilde at the helm, a person who believes in strategy and knows that “luck [is] not real.” Another thing Lotto gets right about Mathilde is that her stalwart determination is dazzling. She is a tremendous heroine, in possession of Penelope’s stamina for waiting and a Siren’s talent for control. Invisibility is her greatest power, the invisibility she resents but also cultivates from the moment she vows “that he would never know the scope of her darkness.”
For all its engagement with ancient and superstitious ways of understanding life, Groff’s novel is less enchanted than its title would imply. Fate is a narcissistic delusion. Furies are just people with wounds, anger, brains, and the resolve to manipulate outcomes. God is merely what Lotto names the puppy dog Mathilde purchased to help coax him out of depression, a comforting but dumb animal who futilely tries to revive the dead by licking their feet.
What does exist is marriage. One of the cultural fragments Groff splices into the “Furies” section of the novel reads: “Welch Dunkel Hier! sings Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio, an opera about a marriage. […] What darkness here! is what Florestan sings.” Fates and Furies shows marriage to consist of sex, housekeeping, misunderstandings, omissions, possession, manipulation, self-erasure, and the ever-lurking fear of abandonment, passed back and forth between husband and wife. Marriage is as much about what is hidden as it is about what is shared, but marriage is collusion, a commitment between two people to stick to the story they create together. “Marriage is made of lies,” Lotto eventually realizes. In Groff’s telling, the darkness of marriage does not seem particularly bad — the bonds that hold Mathilde and Lotto together are no less real for not being made of full disclosure. Groff’s hard, realist vision of marriage — not the fairy-tale voices of the fates that embroider it — gives her novel its considerable force.