If 2015 converted all adults into Beliebers, it did the literary equivalent for Lauren Groff whose Fates and Furies received accolade after accolade throughout the year. If the rave reviews in the papers weren’t enough, US President Barack Obama calling it his favourite read of 2015 certainly didn’t hurt sales with the final homestretch coming in the form of Amazon saying hers was indeed the bestseller last year.
If I add that the book is about marriage from the husband and wife’s perspective, you’re likely to have a flashback and think ‘Woah, did someone just say Gone Girl?’It’s easy to make that comparison given that Gone Girl too was the most talked about book a few years ago that had people falling over themselves to rave about it and it looked at marriage from the husband-wife perspective. And it had a major twist that got reviews along the lines of ‘what a manipulative, scheming, revengeful witch’ Amy was in Gone Girl who had to go to X lengths to get her husband Nick’s attention.
Our lady in Fates and Furies, Mathilde, is not like this in that she’s not plotting Lotto’s slow demise but there are secrets — and then some. Indeed, Groff tells the story of the marriage between Mathilde and Lotto from each person’s perspective, first the young Lotto’s and then Mathilde’s and then there is — the twist — but that’s where the similarities in story/style with Gone Girl end.
Fates and Furies is a novel that is somewhat reminiscent of Gone Girl, at the outset at least
We meet Lotto first, his parents to be exact. Born Lancelot (shortened to Lotto) in dramatic fashion during a hurricane, he is a beloved child but tragic death turns his family’s life upside down. He finds that as an awkward pre-teen child of a single mother who sends him away to Florida, he fits in with kids she calls the bad crowd — people she does not approve of. His mother is a wealthy matriarch who packs him off to boarding school far away. A creative sort, he lands at Vassar on the east coast where he finds his calling in theatre, as an actor in college, and where he meets gorgeous, sultry Mathilde. It is a magical meeting. As Groff writes:
“He felt the drama of the scene. Also, how many people were watching them, how beautiful he and Mathilde looked together. In a moment, he’d been made new. His past was gone. He fell to his knees and took Mathilde’s hands to press them on his heart. He shouted up at her, ‘Marry me!’”
“The little she spoke of childhood was shadowed with abuse. He’d imagined it vividly: poverty, beat-up trailer, spiteful — she implied worse — uncle. Her most vivid memories of her childhood were of the television that was never turned off. Salvation of school, scholarship, modelling for spare change. They had begun to accrete stories between them. ... How she’d been discovered for modelling by a gargoyle of a man on a train. It must have taken an immense force of will for Mathilde to turn her past, so sad and dark, blank behind her. Now she had only him.” — Excerpt from the book
And as Bollywood-esque as it sounds, they do get married. This sweet young couple, Lotto and Mathilde, tie the knot in their 20s and, admittedly spend a good portion of the first quarter of the book copulating — when guests are around for dinner, when she’s doing the dishes — having stimulating conversations about his writing (he becomes a playwright), but there appears a thin layer of bravado on the surface. Lotto is mad about Mathilde but he is also clueless about her; he knows just that her past is “sad” and “blank behind her”, ie he believes it best not to question what she does not want to share. This isn’t to suggest that Mathilde has the full 411 on Lotto. It’s probably why novels on marriage have resonated so well with crowds of late because they’ve captured the bitter truth that couples don’t always know the other — forget what they’re thinking, but what they’ve done.
That’s certainly true about Mathilde’s past: what we find out is disturbing truths, tragedies that are hard to imagine and have, in all likelihood, shaped her desires to control Lotto’s future and to prevent him from knowing too much about her past. She had “made a promise that he would never know the scope of her darkness” and she stayed true to it — which probably begs the question about the state of their union. Lotto’s version of it is almost chirpy compared to hers. It is not about love, or romance — theirs is not lacking; it is hard not to be moved by one party simply not knowing their partner’s past.
While I found the novel engaging, sometimes to the point where I was on the edge of my seat — I admit, a few times incredulous — I was left with a tad sense of discomfort at the notion that the sections ‘Fates’ and ‘Furies’ were assigned to Lotto and Mathilde, respectively. It was as if Lotto’s fate was such and Mathilde was a fury or even Lotto’s fate was Mathilde — a fury. I hope this is a temporary bitter aftertaste and I shall soon return to remembering that you can live with someone all your life and not know them.
The reviewer is digital editor of Newsweek Middle East.
Fates and Furies
By Lauren Groff
Riverhead Books, New York