During a seminar on marriage in nineteenth-century literature, I remember a friend saying that reading about awful marriages (I think we were reading McTeague at the time) made her more protective of her own (she also went to make a thoughtful observation about the text at hand, but it’s the first comment that stayed with me).
I felt the same way reading Lauren Groff’s highly anticipated novel Fates and Furies* (out today from Riverhead), though the marriage in question is not awful in the way the McTeagues’ is, I’m happy to report.
In fact, to all outward appearances, Lotto and Mathilde seem charmed. Beautiful, tall, blessed with good taste and a circle of interesting friends, the couple muddles through a decade of frugal living in Manhattan after they marry in their senior year in college. Then things start to click for them; Lotto becomes a hit playwright, and Mathilde supports him in his burgeoning career over the second decade of their marriage.
Up to this point, the narrative follows Lotto, and we see events from his perspective. His background is fascinating, lively, tragic; a lesser novelist would have been content just to write this character.
But not Lauren Groff. At the pinnacle of Lotto’s success, the perspective of the novel shifts, and suddenly everything we’ve read takes on new layers of meaning when we see it through Mathilde’s eyes. Fates and Furies is a novel not only about a marriage, but about perception: how other characters perceive Lotto and Mathilde, how they perceive each other, and how we, the readers, perceive them. Though Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage begins in 1991, the question of perception is compellingly contemporary, especially given all the think-pieces out there about how we curate our online presence. How much of our lives do we curate for perception’s sake, and how much is out of our control?
I hesitate to use the word “fierce,” because it’s overused (I’m guilty too), but that’s what Ms. Groff’s writing is. It’s evocative, unexpected, and often funny. For example:
He could die right now of happiness. In a vision, he saw the sea rising up to suck them in, tonguing off their flesh and rolling their bones over its coral molars in the deep. If she was beside him, he thought, he would float out singing.
Well, he was young, twenty-two, and they had been married that morning in secret. Extravagance, under the circumstances, could be forgiven. (3)
I admire a writer who has the guts to start a book with a sex scene, and the one that opens Fates and Furies is a brilliant set piece of characterization. It sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Fates and Furies is fearless and engrossing. Highly recommended.
If you read and love Fates and Furies, try these books next:
The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer
The World’s Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy
So, Dear Readers, what are your favorite books about marriage?
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.