In writing as poetic as her previous novel, “Arcadia,” Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies” presents the 24-year marriage of Lancelot and Mathilde, exploring the secrets each partner keeps from the other until their marriage ends in heartbreak, fury and vengeance. Groff writes with an exuberance, intelligence, and wit that few of her contemporaries possess. Her prose is frank and graceful, but behind her genius lingers a certain darkness in her characters and her plot.
Divided into two parts, “Fates” is Lancelot’s story, and “Furies” is Mathilde’s. Groff raises the curtain of “Fates” as if it’s a scene on stage: two 22-year-olds on a beach celebrating their love. They’ve both just graduated from college and eloped. Lancelot, nicknamed Lotto, was an actor in school, and he’d been quite a ladies’ man. Now faithful to Mathilde, he becomes a professional actor struggling to find roles and make money. His rich mother has cut him off from the family’s money because she disapproves of Mathilde. So, Mathilde strives to support the young couple, secretly receiving money from Lotto’s aunt and sister. Over time, Lotto loses much of his charm, and he can’t remember a night when he didn’t fall asleep drunk. Desperate and depressed, he needs to land a steady acting gig.
Fate, though, has other plans for him and Mathilde.
In that first part, we see Mathilde primarily through Lotto’s eyes. “He longed for something wordless and potent: what? To wear her. He imagined living in her warmth forever. People in his life had fallen away from him one by one like dominoes; every movement pinned her further so that she could not abandon him.”
She’s an odd-looking beauty, supportive, loving and optimistic. To pay the bills, she works long hours at an art gallery. When she tells Lotto that 1999 will be his breakthrough year, she’s almost right. But his fame comes not as an actor, but as a playwright.
After years of struggling, a New Year’s night of drinking, and five hours of typing, Lotto writes a play overnight that Mathilde believes brilliant. So begins Lancelot’s success as a playwright with “The Springs,” followed by many other plays with classical sounding themes and titles that are largely autobiographical. No matter how he depicts love and marriage in his plays, Lancelot feels, till his departure, that Mathilde “lived in the deepest room in his heart.” His final play, “The Sirens,” reveals the biggest secret of his marriage.
What we’ve seen of Mathilde through Lancelot’s eyes seems enough to make her a sympathetic character. But the second part, “Furies,” is a shocker. Born in France and named Aurélie, Mathilde lives with her prostitute grandmother who forces her to sleep in a closet. Later, Aurélie’s grandmother sends her to the U.S. to live with her gangster uncle, who provides everything but love. At school, she’s called names and bullied.
Aurélie changes her name and learns to defend herself. Her fury and vengeance become so strong that other children fear her. Her college years go well academically, not socially, and those years embrace Mathilde’s ultimate secret. During their marriage, Mathilde has been more supportive and protective of Lancelot than he knows. And the biggest secret of her past at the gallery is dark enough that Groff’s decision to show us Mathilde first through Lancelot’s eyes is a prudent one, since a cold and furious Mathilde becomes as vengeful as any mythological Fury.
“Fates and Furies” is both romantic and bleak. Occasional humor and irony somewhat soften a tragic story. Mathilde once says of Lancelot’s work, “I think you can be dark, wry, and humorous in a bleak way,” and that’s true of Groff’s novel. “Fates and Furies” is tragedy and comedy in one brilliant vision.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at email@example.com.