Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, a Review
Fates and Furies
Penguin Random House, 2015
On one level, Lauren Groff’s novel, Fates and Furies, is easy to write about because it has a fairly straightforward plot about a very modern couple who fall lustfully in love, marry, and experience all the travails of a typical marriage—money, trust issues, psychological insecurity, secrets. The husband, initially a struggling actor, becomes a famous and successful playwright but dies an early death. The wife lives out the rest of her life on the wealth she’s inherited from her husband’s family and the financial success of his career.
That, of course, would be the Cliff Notes summary of the plot.
To my mind, what keeps the novel so energized, besides Groff’s heightened poetic style of writing, is the author’s ability to include enough metaphysical and ontological darkness to keep the tension of the novel constantly on edge. There is, in a few words, never a dull moment. Groff knows how to include a hybrid mixture of film noir content, a mystery novel, the gothic tradition, and a good old-fashioned erotic love story (I described the love-story of the novel to a friend as being somewhere between Medea and The Great Gatsby.)
I think it would be safe to say that Mathilde Yoder is the central character. She is a lithe, complicated, often devious, always sensual young woman whose horrendous past relentlessly pursues her. She is abandoned by her parents in France at an early age because they hold her responsible for her younger brother’s fall down a flight of stairs. She lives with a prostitute grandmother who is brutally murdered. She is then adopted by an uncle in Pennsylvania. On a trip to New York City, she meets an older man on the train who seduces her into being his paramour. The informal contract ends with him just as she enters Vassar and meets the love of her life, the narcissist, Lancelot (Lotto) Satterwhite.
Lotto comes into her life with his own baggage. He has an agoraphobic mother in Florida whose inherited wealth she refuses to open up to Lotto and Mathilde after they are married (the wealth is eventually transferred to Mathilde after the mother and Lotto both die).
Lotto also finds himself falling passionately in love with a young male composer, who, at one of the rehearsals, is mortified to realize that Lotto does not like the music he’s composed for an opera they are both working on. Lotto is devastated when he discovers that the composer drowned off the Canadian maritime coast (there are strong hints the death was a suicide).
We eventually find out that Lotto has an illegitimate son he fathers in Florida when he was fifteen. This son is the nephew of Chollie, the twin brother of Lotto’s teenage sexual partner. Chollie’s jealousy of Mathilde leads him to reveal to Lotto that Mathilde once had a secret sexual life, destroying Lotto’s belief that his wife had never had sex with anyone before she met him.
Mathilde initially avenges that disclosure by hiring a private detective to uncover Chollie’s dark criminal behavior. She eventually relents by burning the evidence.
After Lotto’s death, Mathilde attempts to catherize her soul with wild, promiscuous sexual encounters and her own rage at having been cheated by life because of Lotto’s early death. Her rage against Chollie is part of that pattern, even though she, ultimately, pulls back from any final bitterness.
Mathilde’s avenging mode becomes even more intense when she returns to France to buy the home she was born in. She has the home destroyed after she purchases it.
At the end of the novel, we are left with what almost seems to be a parody of a 1950s Hollywood film of an aging, tired avenger, Mathilde, who has lost her rage and settles into an elderly life prepared to enjoy all the benefits of a surrogate grandmother to Lotto’s son. (Quite frankly, there were moments when I could actually picture Natalie Wood coming back from the grave to play the aging Mathilde.)
This is, without a doubt, a novel that has all the makings of a blockbuster Hollywood movie—dark pasts, untimely deaths, eccentric characters, booze, revenge, high-fashion, theater, abandoning parents, and enough sexual variety to keep the CEOs of Netflix in permanent bonuses for a couple of years.
Great novel. A more-than-good-read, if you can keep up with all the scene changes and linguistic pyrotechnics—an English Major’s orgasm, for sure. Highly recommend.