Ignore all the platitudes and critical praise. This novel is a hollow excursion into a marriage that’s totally devoid of humanity or remotely relatable characters.
Lotto makes an arse of himself at a conference…
[Lotto]: “There are male wives. When I was an actor, I was so underemployed that I basically did all the housework myself while Mathilde earned the dough. [He did the dishes; that part was true.] Anyway, there is an essential difference in genders that isn’t politically correct to mention these days. Women are the ones to bear the children, after all, they are the ones to nurse, they are the ones, traditionally, who care for the infants. That takes a huge amount of time.”
He smiled, waiting for the applause, but something had gone wrong. There was a cold silence from the crowd. Someone was talking in a loud voice at the back of the auditorium. What had he done? He looked down in panic at Mathilde, who was staring at her shoes.
The girl playwright scowled at Lancelot and said, enunciating very crisply, “Did you just say that women aren’t creative geniuses because they have babies?”
“No,” he said. “Goodness, no. Not because. I wouldn’t say that. I love women. And not all women have babies. My wife, for one. At least not yet. But listen, we’re all given a finite amount of creativity, just like we’re given a finite amount of life, and if a woman chooses to spend hers on creating actual life and not imaginary life, that’s a glorious choice. When a woman has a baby, she’s creating so much more than just a made-up world on the page! She’s creating life itself, not just a simulacrum. No matter what Shakespeare did, it’s so much less than your average illiterate woman of his age who had babies. Those babies were our ancestors, necessary to make everyone here today. And nobody could seriously argue that any play is worth a single human life. I mean, the history of the stage supports me here. If women have historically demonstrated less creative genius than men, it’s because they’re making their creations internal, spending the energies on life itself. It’s a kind of bodily genius. You can’t tell me that that isn’t at least as worthy as genius of imagination. I think we can all agree that women are just as good as men—better, in many ways—but the reason for the disparity in creation is because women have turned their creative energies inward, not outward.”
The murmurs had turned angrier. He listened, astonished, and heard only a very small smattering of applause.
I wasn’t surprised to see Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies nominated for a National Book Award. The novel has received plenty of buzz and critical praise especially from publications like the New York Times where fellow writer Robin Black (who reviewed the book for the paper) called it an “unabashedly ambitious novel that delivers – with comedy, tragedy, well-deployed erudition and unmistakable glimmers of brilliance throughout.” What did catch me by surprise, though, was how much I loathed the book.
My hostility toward Fates and Furies wasn’t immediate. Groff is clearly a talented writer and her well-polished prose drew me into this off kilter narrative about Lotto (full name Lancelot) who meets Mathilde at a college shindig, falls instantly in love and marries her two weeks later (after proposing at the party). Not surprisingly there’s some initial cynicism from their friends who believe the marriage is doomed to fail. However, as the years progress, and Lotto and Mathilde’s relationship survive a number of challenges, those same friends eventually accept that the two of them are meant to be.
Groff explores Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage by splitting the book into two sections. Lotto’s story takes up the first half as the narrative jumps around in time, detailing his upbringing, his early teen years and his relationship with Mathilde. We learn that Lotto’s parents, Gawain and Antoinette, met late in life through Gawain’s sister and that Gawain has built himself a significant fortune by bottling spring water on his property. The fortune only increases when, after Gawain’s sudden death, Antoinette sells off the business and the land. This link to great wealth haunts Lotto throughout novel, especially when Antoinette cuts him off financially when he decides to marry Mathilde. While Lotto and Mathilde regularly stare poverty in the face during the early years of their marriage – she’s the only breadwinner as he struggles to make it as an actor – Lotto is still viewed by his friends and acquaintances as incredibly wealthy. It’s an interesting tension that drives Lotto to make his own way independent of his family’s money. And when one night, in a drunken haze, and realising he won’t make it as an actor, he writes a play that brings Mathilde to tears, Lotto realises he’s found his calling.
I hated Lotto. Not because he’s inherently unsympathetic but because he’s such an awful cliché – the struggling artist with a fragile ego who is completely divorced from reality. While I doubt Groff would view Lotto this way, it was a deliberate move on her part to disconnect him from his surroundings. In an interview she gave to Joanna Scutts of The Guardian Groff said she wanted to address:
‘“the nature of privilege”. Without ever turning him into a fool, Groff slyly exposes the ways in which Lotto’s sex, race and class cushion him in myriad ways and – despite the early death of his father – give him a view of the world as essentially rational and benign.
While I applaud Groff’s intent – the ways privilege is expressed in society is worthy of examination – Lotto is so clueless to his environment, so unaware of how others – including his wife – have manipulated him throughout his life, that it’s difficult to see him as a real person. It’s made worse by the way Lotto deifies Mathilde, seeing her as an angel come to Earth and pure as the driven snow. This is at odds with the opinions of his friends and families who initially can’t figure out what Lotto sees in Mathilde – “She’s just tall and blond and skinny, never pretty.” I get that this disconnect between Lotto and everyone else is symptomatic of his privilege, but it reads as overly sentimental, cloying and totally unrealistic. And so it comes as no surprise when it’s revealed in the novel’s second half that Mathilde – Gone Girl style – has manipulated Lotto from the moment they met.
What’s also comes as no shock is that (SPOILER) Lotto commits suicide halfway through the novel. When he discovers that Mathilde is not a virgin, and may have had an affair while they were married, this shatters his Platonic version of her. Unable to cope he goes back to his ancestral home and promptly kills himself. Because Lotto is so out of touch, and so much the artist with the bruised ego, (or so smothered in his own privilege) his suicide feels utterly inevitable rather than a punch to the gut. And that shouldn’t be the case – Lotto’s death should have impact, because we should care about him. But I didn’t. Not one bit. I was happy to be rid of him. In fact, if I felt anything, it was anger at the way authors – especially literary writers – use suicide as a plot device to elicit emotion from the reader Groff uses it twice in quick succession – both with Lotto’s death, and a few chapters earlier with the death of a composer that Lotto befriends – and in both instances it comes off as predictable and tasteless.
With Lotto out-of-the-way the novel turns to Mathilde. Unlike her husband Mathilde was not born to privilege. In fact when she was four years old she was blamed for the death of her one year old brother. Her parents disown her and she is sent to live with her grandmother in Paris. This begins a journey of psychological and sexual abuse as Mathilde is forced to sleep in a closet as her grandmother – who happens to be a prostitute – brings home clients. She is then shipped over to America to live with her wealthy Uncle who (a) barely acknowledges her existence (b) is a borderline psycho who keeps precious art locked up in a room and (c) is also a crime boss. If that isn’t enough, at the age of seventeen she falls into a 50 Shades of Grey-eque relationship with a sadistic art dealer. This is the man she loses her virginity to, and while it’s not rape, the fact that she stays with him because he’s paying her college tuition indicates a major power gap in the relationship. Everything about Mathilde is so over the top, so overwrought, so completely fucked up that any sense of character or humanity is lost. Hilariously there’s this lingering question whether Mathilde is evil – there’s a suggestion late in the novel that she did murder her brother, pushing him down a flight of stairs – or just a product of a twisted upbringing who still has the capacity for good. But it’s a question that’s only interesting if we’re invested in the character.
Ultimately, though, I couldn’t figure out what this novel was trying to say. Putting the question of privilege aside, which as I’ve discussed is poorly handled, as an exploration about marriage it provides us with a cynical and frankly pointless portrait of two people in a long relationship. The notion that behind the perfect marriage hides many skeletons and secrets is so on the nose that I can’t believe this is the message Groff was hoping to relay. But then if not that, what else is there? While I don’t believe that marriage necessarily provides a path to happiness or is something we should all be striving for, Lotto and Mathilde’s fucked up relationship says nothing of interest about the institution either. Rather, it’s hollow and empty and lacking in humanity. Much like the novel.