Fates and Furies had been bouncing around my to-read list for a long time before I finally borrowed a copy to see what all the fuss was about. It was one of those books that suddenly hits literary circles and becomes all anyone can talk about; despite Groff’s previous publishing history—including the very excellent Arcadia and a short story collection with publication credits including The New Yorker and other Top Tier ™ journals—it was this latest novel that seemed to generate a new wave of interest in her work.
I wasn’t disappointed: I finished the book in one fell swoop, spending a whole Saturday wandering around different rooms in the house, book in hand, fighting the tension between immediate interest and increasing panic that soon enough I’d be finished and there would be no more book to read. And when I did finish reading, it was with the type of emotional reaction I rarely find in contemporary literature; without giving too much away, Fates and Furies broke my heart—I’ve never so badly wanted a book to end a different way.
Groff’s novel follows the relationship between Lotto, a golden-boy actor-turned-playwright, and Mathilde, his wife and editor, from their meet-cute in college through their later adult years. Though Lotto has been blessed with looks, charisma, and (initially) riches, he flounders in his young adulthood trying to make it as an actor, eventually sinking into depression and alcoholism. And then one night, during a bender, he “writes” a play that launches him into stardom and success—a play conveniently discovered and edited by Mathilde, who from that moment on becomes his editor, publicist, marketer, and manager. Lotto, the national-treasure-playwright, could not exist without Mathilde.
The structure of the novel is—as MFA professors everywhere love to quote—indelibly tied to its content: form and function work in tandem in a fairly obvious way here, as the first half of the novel (“Fates”) is attached to Lotto’s point of view, while the second half attaches to Mathilde’s (“Furies”). In “Fates,” we see the couple as a testament to partnership, in which the marriage goes through its inevitable ups and downs, and become attuned to the dynamics of Lotto and Mathilde’s relationship. This is for better or for worse, and mostly for better.
But what’s working under the surface is more insidious: we already understand that Lotto does not really know his wife (who hides her past, a cover-up Lotto never cares to prod) and that she is, in his eyes, the secondary helpmeet to his protagonist. Groff’s themes are a little on the nose here, but salient enough that I’m willing to forgive the obviousness. Yet still we love Lotto, whose endearing quality is, perhaps, his innocence: in believing himself to be deserving of everything he gets; his self-awareness of personal flaws; his childishness; his charisma. Mathilde is as mysterious to the reader as Lotto, and this effacement makes it easy to ignore what we know is coming just around the corner: tragedy. Furies.
And it is tragic, what happens: Lotto dies. Halfway through the novel Groff kills off her more beloved character and leaves us with bereaved, angry, mysterious Mathilde. And it’s at this point that the novel’s form comes into play: we’re now going to see the relationship between Lotto and Mathilde from her perspective, and Lotto (and the reader) had better watch out—things were not as they seemed, at all.
There was something horrible and satisfying about reading that relationship in reverse from Mathilde’s point of view: the revelations about her personal history may have stretched the reader’s belief, but the less glamorous behind-the-scenes view of Mathilde’s role as editor and helpmeet rang entirely true, and the development of anger was particularly compelling for me as a female reader. Mathilde’s resentment at years of unacknowledged work in the service of Lotto’s success—sacrifice now forever erased with his death—finally boils over and it’s extremely satisfying to read.
While I think the experience of reading Fates and Furies is nearly perfect—complete consumption into a world, into characters—the novel itself is not perfect, and it’s unfortunately the second half of the book that loses steam. The idea of secrets in a marriage is not new, and resting on a two-part structure to drive home the story’s revelations is an old move: telling the same story again, only from a different point of view, feels like an amateur move for an accomplished writer. Though the vision of the relationship was complex and beautiful, and the characters compelling, the ultimate message boiled down to a chestnut—perspectives on the same thing can be wildly different—seems disappointingly simple for a book that, I think, deserved more.
What broke my heart and kept me reading the novel was not the idea that a relationship could contain such damaging secrets, and that two people could misunderstand one another so badly. And it wasn’t even the feminist undercurrent, the righteous indignation of Mathilde’s unrewarded work in the face of Lotto’s farcical blindness. What I find wonderful about Fates and Furies, and why I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read in years, is Lotto and Mathilde as tragic-comic characters: two artists who see themselves as heroes, who want and strive and work for one another, and who are completely human. These characters will make mistake after mistake, but with faith in their future success. They refuse to give up. They want to be bigger than they are and believe they can be.
Groff made no bones about the fact that she was drawing from Greek tropes, another of her formal choices that we could quibble with. Whatever you think of a Greek chorus in contemporary fiction, though, maybe this is why the book sings so well: these are stories we’ve been telling from the very beginning of literature. About loss, anger, grief, and love. Fates and Furies well deserves its place as one of those stories that shows us something about being human.
Bridget’s Balanced Review: 8/10