A marriage is its own enclosed universe, and no one except the two people within it can know its complexities, from its wordless shorthand and built-up resentments to its ingrained loyalty and tenderness.
But that's real life. Fiction, thankfully, lets us experience and learn from the lives of others. "Fates and Furies," Lauren Groff's audacious and gorgeous third novel, offers readers such access by depicting over two decades between a husband and wife. The result is not only deliciously voyeuristic but also wise on the simultaneous comforts and indignities of romantic partnership. Marriage isn't always what it seems, even to those inside it.
Our players, Lotto and Mathilde, marry in secret after a two-week courtship. It's the tail end of their senior year at Vassar, and Lotto is the campus' best actor and a popular ladies' man. Mathilde is quiet and mysterious, without any close friends. In the first scene, he and Mathilde make love on the beach as a newly married couple. It is Lotto's unassailable confidence in their union that is most striking: "He could die right now of happiness," Groff writes. Lotto sustains this certainty in their marriage, and in Mathilde, whom he sees as "the nexus of all the good of this world," for almost the entire novel.
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Early in their marriage, Lotto flails as an actor as Mathilde supports them; they throw parties in their New York City basement apartment; they make love. When Mathilde discovers a play Lotto has written in a drunken New Year's Eve haze, she declares he has a gift and nurtures it. His first play is a success, and it's not long before he has a dazzling career as a gifted playwright.
To show so much of Lotto and Mathilde's lives, Groff makes chronological jumps — a month here, a year there — that are occasionally confusing. The disorientation, however, lasts only for a sentence or two as the reader gets her bearings; in general, the movements forward are efficient and poignant, emphasizing how aging simultaneously changes us and reaffirms our biggest flaws.
In her previous work, including the 2012 novel "Arcadia," Groff proved herself a deft prose stylist, translating the familiar into the remarkable and transcendent. "Fates and Furies" further showcases this talent. Take this line, for instance, describing a pastoral view at dawn: "Hot milk of a world, with its skin of morning fog in the window." The lyricism differentiates and elevates Lotto and Mathilde's coupledom, and the reader leans in closer, to find out more. If once or twice the poetry obfuscates rather than clarifies, it's to be forgiven; as with love, the exceptional is preferable to the mundane.
In the book's first half, the reader comes to know Lotto's vanity and his confidence in the world as he has narrated it. Mathilde herself is vivid on the page, if somewhat enigmatic. There's a sense that she isn't wholly who Lotto believes her to be. Groff allows for further discrepancy with the use of bracketed narration, which riffs on and editorializes the story's proceedings. These lines, such as "[Perhaps we love him more like this. Humbled.]" function as a kind of Greek chorus, one that understands more about the characters than the characters themselves.
Midway through, the novel's structure changes, and we get access to Mathilde. Her story isn't chronological but shattered, and her history is revealed gradually between epigrammatic present scenes. It turns out, she is and is not the wife we met at the book's opening.
As Gillian Flynn did in "Gone Girl," Groff recasts the narrative midway through to depict a woman who has curated her marital identity. Mathilde has done so not out of sociopathy but out of self-protection and as a way to preserve her husband's innocence. Also unlike Flynn's novel, what emerges in "Fates and Furies" is an expansion to the husband's narrative rather than a corrective. Groff's retelling of certain key scenes is subtle, and the distinctions resonate.
The structure of "Fates and Furies" emphasizes how differently two people can experience the same marriage, even as they continue to love each other deeply. Both Lotto and Mathilde wrestle themselves and each other into defined roles and stories. To Lotto, he is destined for greatness, and his wife is a saint. Mathilde understands his need for this legend and willingly plays the part, never revealing the flawed parts of herself and her past. Early on, it's remarked, "Women in narratives were always defined by their relations," and it's as if the second half of the book exists to dramatize this statement. Of Mathilde, Groff writes, "The story of women is the story of love, of foundering into one another…. Forgive her if she believed this would be the way it would go. She had been led to this conclusion by forces greater than she."
Perhaps, Groff suggests, it's not as easy to be a wife as it is to be a husband.
The stories we tell ourselves and others give our lives meaning and allow us to connect with those closest to us. These stories can also mislead, disappoint, and hold us back from being our true selves, selves that belie legible narratives. In "Fates and Furies," Lauren Groff has taken the struggles and pleasures of marriage and turned them into art, and in that artfulness she reminds us of the dangers and omissions that any storytelling requires.
Fates and Furies
Riverhead: 400 pp., $27.95