Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

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I meant to read Fates and the Furies slowly, spread out over the course of a week. And then I blinked and it was midnight, I’d cancelled my plans, and the book was somehow finished.  At 392 pages, this is a decently long book. But I would have been happy to stay in this world for another hundred pages.

We first meet Mathilde and Lotto (short for Lancelot-I know) as a couple in their twenties, secretly married after a few weeks of dating. We follow their mostly successful marriage over the decades as they succeed and fail, dream and compromise, love and hate. Soon after they got married, their friends made “joking” bets that the marriage would fall apart after five years. Mathilde and Lotto told themselves it was because their friends didn’t really know them. But Mathilde and Lotto didn’t really know each other either.

The book is divided into two parts-Lotto’s version of events (“Fates”) followed by Mathilde’s (“Furies”). It’s surprising how little these two sections have in common.

Lotto is kind of annoying, the kind of guy who was born on second and thinks he hit a double. He was born rich, white and the darling of his family. He’s charming, intelligent and irresistible to women. Of course, he’s not happy all the time, but he does his best to hide any sadness from the people around him.  In college he’s an actor (these guys always are), with dreams of the Broadway stage.

The couple meets at a party. Lotto falls hard for Mathilde, especially for what he calls her “purity.” She doesn’t seem interested in talking about her past which is fine for Lotto. Nothing in her life matters much to him before they met. He liked the idea that he was her only family. “The little she spoke of her childhood was shadowed with abuse…it must have taken an immense force of will for Mathilde to turn her past, so sad and dark, blank behind her. Now she only had him.”

After graduation, the couple moves to New York. They’re poor (Lotto’s mother cut him off after his surprise marriage) but their house is full of joy and love. Mathilde works at an art gallery to pay the bills while Lotto tries to get his acting career going. He’s not successful, and the usually cheerful Lotto falls into a depressive slump. His luck changes after he drunkenly writes a play in five hours that becomes the toast of New York. More plays follow, and soon they have their bills paid and a house in the country. Mathilde quits her job to make his run more smoothly. He even boasts at a writer’s panel how much his wife loves “to cook and clean and edit my work, it makes her happy to do these things.”

To Lotto, Mathilde was defined through him. She was his wife more than anything else. And even though “Fates” was largely about their relationship, Mathilde remained in the periphery as his cheerleader or his silent reproach. He loved her but never really revealed much to the reader about her beyond platitudes. When I finished Lotto’s section, I expected “Furies” to be more of the same. I pictured Mathilde as loving but resentful of her husband’s success, maybe unhappy to have been married so young. Maybe she even had an affair or two to cope. I was not prepared for the complete shift. Mathilde truly did love her husband, but he did not know her at all.

I have a lot more to say about this fabulous book, but I think saying too much could lessen the reader’s experience. So I’ll keep it short. Read Fates and Furies.

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