Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Review published on August 5, 2015. Reviewed by Susannah Perkins

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

Gone Girl meets Greek tragedy in Lauren Groff’s third outing, Fates and Furies – her first novel Monsters in Templeton was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2008 and her second Arcadia was rated one of the best books of 2012. This novel has a very different feel however, taking a much sharper look at the bonds that bind and the secrets which slumber. Groff considers the marriage of Lancelot Satterwhite and Mathilde, charting their lives over two decades. The first half of the book focuses on the life of Lancelot, better known as Lotto, then at the mid-way point flips over so that we see events from the perspective of his wife. Those two young twenty year-olds who, post nuptials, walked hand in hand along the beach grow older and change but at their shoulder are the omniscient yet invisible Fates and Furies to remind, to consider, to evaluate – who are we? Who do we become when we marry?

Comparisons to Gone Girl seem on the surface to fit perfectly. We have a golden couple, Lotto and Mathilde, we have a dark past – like Amy, Lotto is an heir to a large fortune. Yet Fates and Furies is far more subtle – Groff is considering the very nature of story-telling itself. Lotto battles to be an actor but after years of failure, he finds instead acclaim as a playwright. His wife watches sideways as he experiments with different forms – Mathilde has her own view on the act of writing, ‘She was so tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off.’ On the other hand, the Fates and Furies who are telling us this novel occasionally click their tongue and correct Lotto as he mis-remembers a detail – we know that the story Lotto believes in is not necessarily the correct one. The same is not true of Mathilde. She remembers everything.

The morning of their wedding, Mathilde objects that she is not ‘chattel’ when Lotto crows that she is his – she wants their marriage to be ‘something bigger’ and new but even as the new couple embrace, the Fates and Furies note that ‘a third person, their marriage, had slid in.’ The early chapters skip over the marriage’s early years by chronicling the Satterwhites’ annual party, during which their friends take bets on how long they expect the union to survive. In a world where people can unpick this once unbreakable bond, where it no longer needs to be one man and one woman being brought together, it is an interesting moment to consider what it means to commit yourself to one person for the rest of your life.

The very word wife is charged – Mathilde supports her husband during his acting years by going out to work, later when he is successful she supports him by running his business. She becomes his helpmeet. Later Lotto will cause offence at a conference by his ill-chosen words on women and wifedom, commenting that there can be ‘male wives’ who take on a similar role to their female spouses. By placing her two leads in careers which involve the arts, Groff is able to frame these discussions without it ever seeming overly-contrived. The supporting cast of friends and relatives provide a variety of possibilities in terms of relationships; Lotto’s sister Rachel finds love early with Elizabeth, another friend ends up with a trophy wife, another repeatedly marries and sires children and then there is Lotto’s Aunt Sallie who has chosen spinsterdom and a life carefully managing others.

There was a kind of chill to these characters – far less unlikeable than the cast of Gone Girl but they are still weighed down by the secrets which they carry. I was reminded more than anything of Macarthy’s The Group, which takes a similar aerial view of relationships. The terror of carrying a secret which you fear will cancel out the love someone has for you – the question of how far love really can forgive all wrongs – of wishing desperately to truly be the person reflected in the eyes of your lover – this does feel like a book written with enough thought and skill to carry those ideas. The Fates and Furies who narrate the novel are never intrusive, their interventions are rare and they pass on the whole unnoticed, but I felt that this worked better than a more grandiose presence might have done. Through them, Groff channels a grace for her protagonists – this is not a story of heroes and villains but rather of humans who long to be better than they are.

Susannah Perkins

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
William Heinemann, hbk 17 Sept. 2015

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