My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Lauren Groff was born in Cooperstown, New York and grew up near the Baseball Hall of Fame. I thought about that as I was considering how I would sum up my thoughts about her latest book. I think she has written the story of a man who was born on third base and thinks he's hit a home run, and his wife, a woman who knows that you have to learn to bunt and run out those bunts, then steal second base, third base, and be prepared to go home when the flustered pitcher makes a wild pitch.
This is a remarkable story of a marriage, but the marriage is just a vehicle for getting into the nature of human existence, a way to explore philosophical truths as revealed by mundane events. Baseball is sometimes seen as a metaphor for life; here, marriage is the metaphor for life.
The book is divided into two parts, as the title might suggest. The first part, the Fates, is Lancelot (Lotto) Satterwhite's story. Is it coincidental that Lancelot is familiarly known as Lotto, evincing thoughts of lotteries and luck? I think not. Nothing is coincidental about this book.
Lotto was born into a family that had made its fortune from bottled water. His father, Gawain, whom Lotto worshiped, had recognized the value of the water on his family land and, almost casually, he made his fortune from bottling and selling it. One could almost say that it was fate.
From his birth, Lotto was seen by the three adults in his family - his father, his mother, Antoinette, and his Aunt Sallie - as a golden child meant for greatness. Lotto never questioned that fate or his luck in having been born rich. In fact, he never questions much of anything. He is essentially a narcissist who goes through life simply accepting that all the good things that accrue to him are the way things are meant to be. It is the will of the universe.
In his teenage years and early twenties, Lotto is known for being notoriously licentious, casually bedding scores of women and girls. It is because of this behavior that his mother (his beloved father has died by now - the tragedy of young Lotto's life) sends her teenage son away to boarding school in order to get him out of the community. This presages a rift with his mother that is never healed.
At the age of 22, at Vassar, Lotto meets Mathilde Yoder at a party and immediately asks her to marry him. She is a tall (6 feet), willowy blonde, the perfect accompaniment to his well over six foot athletic frame. They are fated to be together, he thinks.
A couple of weeks after meeting, they do marry and Lotto embarks on his chosen profession of acting. Trouble is, he really isn't very good at it and, through several years of trying, he never manages to break through and truly gain any financial stability. Through all those years, Mathilde is the breadwinner with her work at an art gallery and with an online company.
Finally, one night, in despair over his lack of success, Lotto sits down and, in a white hot fever, he writes a play. The next morning when Mathilde gets up, she finds the play on his laptop and proceeds to edit it and clean it up. She molds it into a product that can be presented to backers and eventually the play is performed to great success. Lotto's true profession is found. He becomes a successful playwright and Mathilde continues to work in the background to smooth the way for him and to edit and sharpen his writing. Theirs is a successful marital partnership. They are considered by all who know them as the golden couple. Their partnership lasts until Lotto's death.
In the second part of the book, the Furies, we get Mathilde's take on their life together. Lotto's story had, in a sense, been the public view of their marriage, the way things looked from the outside. From Mathilde's perspective, we learn the private view; we see all the hidden gears and pulleys working to create that smooth public image.
The first thing that we learn is that Mathilde is not the pure, uncomplicated spirit that Lotto had always imagined her to be. There was an early tragedy in her life, but it was not necessarily or entirely the workings of fate. There was some fury involved, even there.
She was born in an idyllic section of France and spent her early years there, but when tragedy struck, her golden childhood ended and she was banished from her family, eventually ending up with an uncle in the United States where she grew up. Through a convoluted series of events, she came to attend college at Vassar where she met Lotto, but we learn that the meeting was not at all fated. It was, in fact, meticulously planned and choreographed by Mathilde. For the rest of their lives together, her planning and choreography will guide their existence and ensure the success of their creative partnership.
This is truly a remarkable book by a wonderfully talented writer. I had read Groff's previous book Arcadia in December 2012 and enjoyed it immensely. (Read my review here.) If possible, I liked this one even better.
As I read Fates and Furies, It occurred to me that there are parallels with a couple of blockbuster novels of recent years, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, in that all three owe something to the mystery genre and have the structure of seeing the story unfold through different perspectives. But this is much the richer blend, combining concepts and ideas from Greek drama, from Shakespeare, from Nabokov - Groff only borrows from the best. A delicious read!
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