When I read that Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies was nominated for a National Book Award, I wanted to stop reading it right that second. I don’t have a good record with the Nation Book Award and its nominees for the prestigious fiction prize. When I scroll through the list of past nominees and winners I’m all “Hated it. Hated it. Ugh, barf. Hated it.”
It seems the people who award these things have a penchant for beautifully written, puzzling, frustrating stories where not a lot actually happens. So it goes with Lauren Groff’s latest.
In this one we get the story of the marriage between Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder, a tall, shiny beautiful couple who met and married during the last few weeks of their time at Vasser.
The first 2/3 of the book is told from Lotto’s point of view. We see his early beginnings in Florida, his banishment from the family, his golden-boy days of bordering school and college, how he struggles outside the warm confines of college, and then his slow rise to fame and fortunes as a renowned playwright. All along, good ol’ Mathilde is there to support him in every way possible.
The last third of the book is told from Mathilde’s point of view and pretty much upends everything we’ve learned about from Lotto. She’s not Mathilde at all, in fact she’s Aurelie, a former-French girl who was banished from her family because of a horrible accident when she was still a toddler, an accident her family blamed her for. She never tells Lotto any of this, or the fact that she traded sex for college tuition from a wealthy art dealer all through college. In fact, Mathilde keeps her entire past from her husband.
This Mathilde at the end of the book is all fire and fang and not all the Mathilde Lotto told us about.
So, what the fuck?
This book puzzles me. I’m not sure what to make of this story. I’m not sure why Lauren Groff, whose previous work I love, has chosen to tell the story in this way. What is she trying to say?
We learn pretty late that Mathilde has orchestrated quite a few things in Lotto’s life. . . from heavily editing his first, wildly-popular play to bribing her creepy uncle for the money to finance it, yet she never tells Lotto about any of these machinations. Why? I just don’t understand why she would do all this and keep it under wraps. I mean, it’s obvious Mathilde’s got some issues but come on!
I can’t figure out what this is supposed to mean. As Mathilde is unspooling her story for the reader she never once wavers about her love for Lotto, even when she leaves him briefly (unbeknownst to him). Are we, the reader, supposed to believe that she was really in love? So in love that she had to hide her past from him? And what kind of love is that where you can’t share those kinds of things with your partner? It’s not like Lotto wouldn’t understand, hell, he was pretty much banished from his family too. Isn’t that something they could have really bonded over?
Is the point of this story that marriage is nothing but two strangers who have decided to put up with each other because of reasons and that you can’t really ever truly know the person you are sleeping next to? Is the moral that men are hapless, clueless, self-involved hunks of meat and women are the ultimate, self-sacrificing puppet masters?
I just don’t get it, and I want to get it.
And what was all that revenge-seeking on Chollie? Can someone who read the book explain that to me? And then the long lost kid? And why was Mathilde so weirded out by the little red-headed Canadian composer boy?
Why don’t I get this book? What am I missing?