Saturday, August 13, 2016

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

Beautifully written, Fates and Furies (2015), by Lauren Groff, is a self-consciously “literary novel” in the sense that characters are highly educated and often allude in their conversations to such subjects as Greek tragedy and opera; the novel also uses unusual narrative devices (stream of consciousness, contrasting narratives, interpolated authorial commentary).  The defining device of the novel is its division into two main sections: one devoted to Lancelot (Lotto) Satterwhite; the other to Mathilde Yoder.  They are married.

The first half of the novel (“Fates”) records the gradual development of a marriage over a 20-year period.  It’s told from the male point of view, mainly.  The second half (“Furies”) I expected to tell the same story from a female point of view.  It does that, but in a way different from what I anticipated.

Fates and Furies explores the idea that marriages can be based on deeply held perceptions each partner holds of the other, perceptions that can be totally or partially wrong.  The woman in this story at the age of four was part of a tragic event that led to her rejection by her parents and to her being raised over the next fifteen years by a succession of indifferent relatives.  The woman defines her whole self-image by this event, by her recollection and interpretation of what happened, by her guilt.  The book questions whether the life she lived (much of which her husband knew nothing about) was justified by the event that happened so long before.

The way the story is told, the nature of the characters, the surprising turns—these relieved to an extent the dread I felt at what I imagined might be the oncoming “fates” of the characters.  I was reminded in this sense of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, a novel I appreciated in many ways but which I also intensely disliked because the experience of reading it was painful.

Negative traits in both the main characters tend to balance out each other.  Lotto is a failed actor but successful dramatist whose bombast and narcissism weigh against Mathilde’s secretive inwardness.  While Lotto at least achieves some success in his career, the highly talented Mathilde (who has a role in the writing of her husband’s plays) suppresses entire dimensions of her being and devotes herself to what she regards as love for her husband.

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