November for most of us is a frenetic month – we suddenly realise that there’s only one month until the end of the year. Many of us act as if we are auditioning for a cameo role in the next Fast and Furious franchised film, as we juggernaut at break-neck (and sometimes testosterone-fueled) speed to get everything ticked off the ‘to do’ list by December.
Photo courtesy wall.alphacoders.com
Some of us fully succeed, some partially, and some (like me) fail. For the first time in my year-long tenure at Fiona’s Wednesday Night Book Club at Avid Reader, I not only failed to finish the book, I only got to page three.
I had nothing to contribute only just having been introduced to the two central characters: Lotto (whose real name is Lancelot – yes, as in King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) and Mathilde, who I knew I was going to like because she was wearing a green bikini.
The book Fates And Furies – a rich, expansive, layered novel by Lauren Groff is preferably best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, giving the reader plenty of time for a bit of navel-gazing and self-reflection. And luckily for me, I had the benefit of the insights of my fellow book club readers to really get the most out of this book.
It is inevitable that you form alliances with readers in your book club because you find kindred literary spirits who see (and feel the same) as you about passages of writing. I listened very carefully about what “M” said about the novel, and this quote from the book about marriage (which is one of the themes).
“Marriage is made of lies; kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you’d crush them to paste. She never lied, just never said.”
And, as usual, I found his observations profound. I hardly ever agree with “C” – she sometimes scoffs mercilessly at what I find beautiful, but she is a ‘fire-cracker’ with a first-class mind, so I took note when she alluded to the subtexts of Greek mythology and Shakespearean tragedy. The comparisons between Lauren Groff and Jonathan Franzen (whom I adore) piqued my interest further, and I was really looking forward to reading the book.
I could see the similarities with Jonathan Franzen, writing about contemporary sagas, but also a dash of Jeffrey Eugenides’ (The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex) style of literary melancholia that I love and find terribly romantic. There was also a homage of sorts to Donna Tartt, and the cloistered environs of Ivy-League colleges that produce graduates in the liberal arts who are part of a rowing eight (Lotto is on the team at Vassar).
I really liked the concept of telling the story of marriage from two perspectives – first from Lotto’s (the husband’s perspective) in ‘Fates’, and then from Mathilde’s (the wife’s) in ‘Furies’. Given how much I loved the structure and premise, sadly it was not the poignant examination of marriage that I was expecting.
It is a marriage built on secrets, but these secrets felt less complex than I wanted and the plot lacked credibility. The only way I can describe this is that it felt almost like a ‘shock-factor’ thriller (melodramatic plot twists and secrets that didn’t always make complete sense) disguised as a literary novel (dense prose with bizarre, convoluted metaphors and references to Greek mythology). I have since noted that other reviewers have coined the novel a literary Gone Girl (by Gillian Flynn).
The reader gets an intimate insight into Lotto’s psyche in ‘Fates’. Groff tells us he has charisma – being blonde, tall, and handsome (even if his beauty is marred by the pock-marks from adolescent acne), but I just thought he was a typical privileged white male who from some reason was believed to be a creative genius. The reader follows Lotto as he morphs from a failed actor to a successful playwright, but he remains flawed.
Lotto lives a cosseted life, facilitated by Mathilde who caters to his every need into order to allow him to create, and for his ‘genius’ to be appreciated. But it is his need for seeking universal praise and attention that results in his total disconnect with reality.
Lotto is a ‘genius’ of the patriarchal white American literary tradition – he follows in the footsteps of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose wife and muse Zelda’s own particular talents were mined and exploited for the ‘greater good’ of his novels until her spirit was completely extinguished, and she descended into madness. His rival, Ernest Hemingway, solved this problem by changing his wives regularly – Elizabeth ‘Hadley’ Richardson (1921–1927), Pauline Pfeiffer (1927–1940), Martha Gellhorn (1940–1945), and Mary Welsh Hemingway (1946– 1961).
But is Mathilde truly content to be the helpmate of a ‘genius’? Is she not spectacular in her own right? Mathilde has the modelesque and slightly androgynous beauty so admired in the latter part of the 20th century. Standing six feet in her socks, she is all sharp angles, high cheekbones, and undoubtedly jutting hipbones.
Mathilde appears to be devoid of conventional vanity but Groff often describes the clothes and physical appearance of her anti-herione, and she wears bikinis a lot (even well into her 40s), yoga pants and other work out gear, and shimmers in spectacularly simple sheaths at opening nights or the many parties this ‘golden couple’ host. Mathilde’s hairstyle goes from sun-kissed long and blonde to cropped and platinum which gave me (as a reader) the impression that she had a real sense of the impact of her physical presence (and knew how to ‘work’ it).
Not only does Mathilde pay all the bills and manage the household, she listens to Radiohead, and still manages to surreptitiously edit Lotto’s plays (which often have obscure references to Greek mythology). Now that’s what I call true genius!
‘Furies’ – the second part of the novel is Mathilde’s chance to tell her story, complete with all its secrets.
“Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband. What she did not tell him balanced neatly with what she did. Still, there are untruths made of words and untruths made of silences, and Mathilde had only ever lied to Lotto in what she never said.”
I wanted Mathilde’s perspective on her marriage and their relationship, but instead, most of ‘Furies’ involved introducing new and external shocking revelations, including more uncomfortable sex scenes (I am not a prude but did find the repetitive crude details a bit too much). I was also slightly uncomfortable with the regular and derogatory use of the word ‘breeder’ in reference to mothers (particularly those whose bodies clearly showed that they had borne children).
I did enjoy the parts of ‘Furies’ that examined grief and involved Lotto’s family. I thought Antoinette (absurdly named ‘muvva’ by her children, Lotto and Rachel) was a very interesting character. Particularly, her physical transformation: from the young curvaceous red-headed siren who made her living performing as a mermaid swimming in a tank, to the aging overblown agoraphobic recluse who smelt of roses and talcum powder, and never ventured outside her Florida beach house. I wanted to find out more about this bitter and manipulating mother-in-law, and how her adoration contributed to Lotto’s narcissism and self-indulgence.
The character of Rachel, Lotto’s baby sister, seemed a bit contrived and formulaic. Despite having briefly been married to a man, she was a lesbian, and in a committed relationship with her ‘wife’ Elizabeth which included children. Ditto with Samuel, Lotto’s black classmate at prep school. It appears that Groff felt compelled to show diversity, and depart from the privileged white male model.
While I had empathy for Mathilde (Aurélie), ultimately I could not fully comprehend her self-hatred or her motivations, or why she was compelled to live through her husband. Why did she choose Lotto when she could have been so much more than his wife in the background?
Fates And Furies is a highly complex novel, and Lauren Groff takes on the herculean task of blending a contemporary tale of marriage with ‘literary’ devices, such as including several long excerpts from Lotto’s plays, most of which are based on myths. I know it is a matter of opinion and personal preference but, I didn’t think these excerpts enhanced the plot – they merely interrupted it.
But I commend Lauren Groff’s ambition, stylistic use of language, and willingness to take literary risks. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.
Fates And Furies rated highly with the book club with the average score being around 8.5, which in retrospect is around the mark that I would give the novel. Although I was critical of some aspects of the book, I recognised more than a few ‘flashes of brilliance’, and kudos must be given to an author willing to take risks.
In addition to receiving almost uniformly high scores, the book club voted Fates And Furies the best book for 2015 – in terms of the discussion it engendered. As I hadn’t read the book at the time of voting, I couldn’t include it in my selection. Fates And Furies is worthy of great discussion but I stand by my decision to vote for The Natural Way Of Things by Charlotte Wood, because reading this book made me want to be a better person. And I don’t think there is any greater recommendation for a book.