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FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff

I finally made it through the audio (14 hours) of Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, and I’m still processing the book. It’s one of those books where the less you know about it going in, the better, but OMG I want to talk and talk about this book with anyone who has read it.

I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.

Fates and Furies is basically two books in one. Both are about the marriage of Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite and his wife, Mathilde Yoder. One half is told from Lotto’s perspective, and the other from Mathilde’s. The first half, Lotto’s side, is about his deep, deep love for Mathilde, his failed acting career, his brilliant playwriting career, and the friends and family in the couple’s orbit during the course of the marriage. Despite the early death of his father and his mother’s estrangement, Lotto was born under a lucky star (Fates). People are naturally drawn to him, and after his early professional failures, his success skyrockets. Most of all, he – a born womanizer – is devoted to his wife Mathilde, whom he believes to be the purest, most honest women he’s ever known. He’s faithful to her to the end.

(SORT OF SPOILER-Y – proceed with caution) The second half of the book is told from Mathilde’s perspective, and what a change in perspective it is. Mathilde loves Lotto fiercely and purely, but beyond that, she is not the person he believes her to be. I found her to be one of the most interesting and disturbing characters I’ve ever come across in a book. The twists and machinations that Groff unspools in the second half of Fates and Furies are breathtaking. Mathilde is a deeply damaged and angry woman (Furies), and I have deep appreciation for Groff’s ability to conjure her up. I certainly couldn’t have.

So there are really two books to review here. I found the first to be a little tedious. I skimmed through some of the chapters about Lotto’s plays, and I ultimately found him tiresome. He’s self-absorbed and lives in a kind of old-fashioned world where he doesn’t have to focus on quotidian details like bills or cooking. Maybe it was the audio version that did it, but I was also annoyed by his Southern drawl and theatrical delivery. This was likely all intentional – Groff setting up the counterpoint of Lotto’s openness and idealism with Mathilde’s secrecy. The second half of the book was the thrill for me, hands down. I couldn’t get enough of it.

I’ve read a bunch of reviews of this book that describe Fates and Furies as the story of a marriage and the secrets and passions two people hide from each other over the years. Uh, no. This is not a typical marriage! Neither one is a typical spouse, and Mathilde’s machinations are (I hope) rare among loving unions. Instead, I recommend this Slate review by Laura Miller, who nailed it:

The novel is in many ways about marriage, as many critics have observed. But it’s also about something even more universal than love. Two people sharing the same home and what seems to be the same life can occupy entirely different planets, storywise; two very different short novels can, bound together, explore the way we use stories to get what we need to make sense of our own lives and others’… ‘Fates,’ published alone, would have felt slight. ‘Furies,’ published alone, would have seemed farcical. In binding them together and letting the parts reflect each other like distorted mirrors, Groff reminds us that while Lotto may live in a dream world, he’s not the only one.

Groff’s certainly is a dream world. I’ve woken up from it and am still working on interpreting it.

About the audio: two books, two narrators. Lotto’s narrator Will Damron imbued him with the dreamy drawl I mentioned earlier, making him almost otherworldly and, I thought, inaccessible. I also didn’t like his Mathilde – too much of a falsetto. She sounded like a pansy. Julia Whelan was the perfect narrator for Mathilde, though. Precise, cold, and thin, she gave Mathilde the calculating, deliberate tone needed to pull her off. So the audio was a mixed bag for me.

If you’ve read Fates and Furies, come sit next to me. Let’s talk.