By Allyson Vaughan
If you haven’t heard about Lauren Groff’s new novel Fates and Furies then you haven’t been paying attention. Even Barack Obama listed it as his favorite book of 2015 not long after its release in September. Echoing the novel’s first line, for now, Fates and Furies “is the one you can’t look away from; it’s the shining one.” Groff has written other novels; Arcadia, The Monsters of Templeton, and Delicate Edible, Birds. But Groff’s new novel grips its readers from the first page with the promise of an intimate, but sprawling tale of Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite, a gifted screenwriter, and Mathilde Yoder, the love of his life and the driving force behind his entire career. The couple appears to be blessed by fate with talent, love, and later secrets after their elopement at the age of 22. The novel follows them through their lives, showcasing the dynamic between them, which isn’t what either thought it was. Marriage can often be a tired subject in fiction; there’s always the sickening gushing phase where both see light in the other’s eyes, then some tribulations, then some gushing again, then some more trials, and then finally reality. The reality usually being an ignored wife and a cheating husband.
But Groff doesn’t fall into formulaic plot structures with Fates and Furies. Instead, both Lotto and Mathilde are given equal time and care to develop into fully realized, flawed, and even sometimes loveable characters. But that’s part of the beauty of Groff’s work. Lotto’s character gives off the same feeling of walking through a burst of sun after spending too much time in the shadows. He bursts with energy and creativity and charm, though at times he is narcissistic and obtuse. He is a rocket blaring through the atmosphere with a course in mind, and that course leads him to Mathilde—but that course, as the reader comes to know, is not entirely set by Lotto himself. But if Lotto is a ray of bright light then he is only so because Mathilde is there to feel his warmth. While she may appear to take a backseat in their dynamic in Part One, taking place from Lotto’s perspective, Mathilde is revealed to be in entire control of both their situations in Part Two. Groff’s treatment of Mathilde is neither sympathetic nor condemning, as her actions and choices prove Mathilde to be a dark, twisted, and resourceful force of nature. Though her power resonates through the narrative, Mathilde is not presented as a one-sided individual. As Groff writes, “Mathilde had always been a fist, in truth. Only with Lotto had she been an open hand.” Though her actions often cause the reader to question her moral character, Mathilde remains a realized, vulnerable character that is capable of love. It is difficult not to admire a character, however flawed, that refuses to remain a victim of circumstance, but a manipulator of it.
And so these are the characters the reader will spend 390 pages with. And the furious sequence of events makes the novel move at a much faster pace than one would expect. I expected to take weeks reading this novel because of the richness and intricate, lyrical language. And you will want to relish in it and reread passages to savor Groff’s unique style. This novel is pure poetry in every linguistically sense. Groff might be one of the most gift writers of contemporary literature I’ve read in some time. With the intensity of The Girl on the Train, the structure of Shakespearean tragedy, and the expansive look at the intimacies of a relationship formed on fate and secrets that I’ve not experience before. Fates and Furies accomplishes what many works of modern fiction fail to do. It manages to captivate not with sex, though it is often sexual, not with over convoluted plots that distract from the characters, though it is layered, but with genuine, flawed characters and pure story. All without allowing its drama to become over dramatized.
Groff’s novel is completely charged to the point that it feels like a living thing. The intricacies of the plot as they unfold are often surprising and predictable in the sense that the reader feels that the happenings were fate, and that none of it could’ve happened any other way. Admittedly, at times the novel frustrated, but only because it was so easy to fall into these characters and their story and want what they did and hate that I did because what they want isn’t always right. Groff’s novel isn’t only going to captivate you, but it’s going to make you question your judgment as you seesaw between hating and tolerating and loving Lotto and Mathilde. It is fitting that this novel’s focus is on two individuals married to one another. Because to read Groff’s novel is to be married to it, at least for a little while, and you will carry it with you for some time afterwards.I certainly did, and finishing the novel left me with the feeling of reaching across a bed to find the empty space where it used to lay.