Tag Archives: marriage

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.

SUMMERLONG by Dean Bakopoulus

I’ve seen Summerlong by Dean Bakopoulos on many 2015 summer book lists – usually enjoying glowing reviews – and it was positively reviewed by a few sources I trust (Book Chatter and Ron Charles), so I decided to give it a go.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me.

Summerlong is about an odd love square (is that a thing?) that forms one hot summer in Grinnell, Iowa. Claire and Don are married, in their late 30s, and at a precipice in their marriage. Don, a realtor, has hidden their dire financial situation from his wife, and the two now face foreclosure on their house and an inevitable bankruptcy filing. Meanwhile, Charlie, an underemployed actor in his late 20s, is back in town to go through his father’s papers and prepare his house for sale after his father is moved to a nursing home with dementia. And ABC, a recent Grinnell graduate, has returned to her college town after the death of her best friend/lover, mired in grief.

One night, these characters interact in an unexpected way: Don comes across ABC lying in the grass, smoking pot, and joins her for an intimate but chaste evening of sleeping next to each other and getting stoned. Claire goes for a midnight run and meets Charlie in the parking lot of a convenience store, where they share an instant attraction. Over the course of the next 3 months, the characters couple off in a variety of combinations, sometimes consummating their attractions and sometimes not. Don and Claire’s marriage deteriorates until they decide to separate, while ABC floats along in her grief and depression and Charlie tries, unsuccessfully, to find his father’s missing manuscript and redeem his academic reputation.

I really didn’t like Summerlong.  I did appreciate some of the insights into marital harmony and middle age that Bakopoulos infused into Claire and Don’s relationship. But I found the other relationships unrealistic and strange, and I had a really hard time with most of the dialogue in the book. I don’t think people talk to each other in real life like they do in Summerlong. Claire and Don were blunt and sharp to the point of meanness – do most married people act like that to each other?

Lots of drugs, lots of sex. I don’t have a problem with that, but they became a crutch for the author. These characters didn’t have much to say to each other or a genuine attraction, so he just had them get stoned and hook up. Problem solved! There are also too many unlikely coincidences.

There’s a feisty old grandmother type who says it like it is and eventually saves some of these doomed characters. Meh.

Didn’t these characters have ANYONE else to hang out with other than the other three?

Don and Claire’s kids – didn’t THEY find the whole setup kind of weird?

Why is Claire so angry all the time? And why hasn’t she worked for the last 10 years? For a feminist New Yorker, she sure depends on her man to make everything better.

These questions plagued me as I read Summerlong. I just didn’t get it. I know I am in the minority on this one – people seem to love this book. It just made me angry.

SINGLE, CAREFREE, MELLOW by Katherine Heiny

Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow is a collection of stories about women, most of whom are in the process of deceiving the men they love. They are cheating on spouses; they are longing for other men they aren’t with; they are in search of something different. These women aren’t bad people. They are human – funny, flawed, loving – and feeling constrained by the roles they have found themselves in. I really enjoyed this collection of stories. Heiny’s characters are anything but single, carefree and mellow; they are deeply entrenched in relationships, highly introspective, and emotionally intense. My favorite story is called “That Dance You Do” and is about a mother planning her son’s 8th birthday party. It’s just perfect. I laughed out loud many times reading that story, just as I did throughout the whole book.

Single, Carefree, Mellow came out this past week, and Heiny has been getting a lot of attention. She has a story of her own to tell: her first story was published twenty years ago, when she was 24. She sent it to 30 magazines, only to be rejected by all of them, and finally sent it to The New Yorker, who accepted it. That story – “How To Give the Wrong Impression”- is included in Single, Carefree, Mellow, and is about a young woman whose romantic love for her male roommate is unrequited. After the success of that story, Heiny got married, had kids, and didn’t publish anything for 20 years, until this collection came out.

I had the great pleasure of attending a Q&A at Politics & Prose tonight between Heiny and her editor, Jenny Jackson, from Knopf. (I knew I would like her – she has edited Jennifer Close, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Emily Mandel.)  It was a really interesting conversation, which I have tried to sum up here. Read this Q&A and I promise you will want to read the book.

Q: Tell me about the story “How To Give the Wrong Impression” and why there was such a long break after that one.

A: There was a girl in my building who told me about “the guy she lives with”. I asked her if he was her boyfriend or not, and the whole story unrolled from there like a rug. It’s as personal to me today as the day I wrote it. Of all of my protagonists, I am most like her.

After it was published, I wrote a lot of YA novels, then got met my husband, got married and had kids. That took everything out of me. I didn’t start writing again until my youngest was in first grade. Then the floodgates opened. I think the imagination is like a muscle – the more you write, the easier it gets.

Q. Most of your stories are about relationships and women chafing against marriage. Did you set out to write about love and infidelity?

A: Sex and relationships is what I like to read about, so it’s what I wanted to write about. In my collection, infidelity is really second to what I want to write about. The inspiration for the infidelity? My husband was a spy, a professional secret-keeper. I had to keep his job a secret and be careful about what I said. That colored my fiction.

Q: When women characters are unfaithful, there is often the opinion that they have to get their comeuppance and be punished for it. That is not the case here. Was that a conscious decision here, to buck convention?

A: No. I don’t like to write about the beginnings or ends of relationships. I don’t like to write about the day of reckoning. I would rather talk about the middle. I am interested in whether the infidelity will change the relationship or the people. I leave a lot up to the reader; I am not moralizing.

Q: Do you care if your readers dislike your characters?

A: I love my characters like I love my children. They are flawed but I love them anyway. I don’t care if my readers like the characters as long as they are enjoying the book.

Q: Let’s talk about the feminist aspect of the collection. These women are chafing against convention and are feeling circumscribed in their lives. A lot of the drama here happens in the kitchen, in the car, in the dining room. What drew you to the domestic sphere?

A: I am not a person who could write an international thriller – I don’t know much about politics or foreign policy. I get my news from Facebook. When you have kids, you enter a parallel universe of naps, playdates and logistics – a domestic microcosm. That’s where I see things happening.

Q: Maya appears in three of your stories. Why? Could you write a novel about her?

A: The Maya/Rhodes stories were hard to write because I like Rhodes so much. He deserves better than Maya. But things would happen to me and I’d see them happening to Maya. I don’t think I could do a whole novel about her because I feel such solidarity with Rhodes.

Q: “How To Give The Wrong Impression” was written 20 years ago, but it still holds up. Why do you think that’s true?

A: Unrequited love is always relatable. It is as old as jealousy.

Q: The story “That Dance You Do” is about a particularly horrible experience at a kid’s birthday party? Was this true to life? Is that your most autobiographical story?

A: This story was based on my son’s 8th birthday party. But it’s so boring to say that this is my most autobiographical story. There are a lot of true things throughout the book. I often put something true into a different context within the narrative.

Q: Short stories used to get a bad rap. Publishers were reluctant to put a lot of muscle behind them. Now, there is a real spark behind short stories. Why do you like writing stories?

A: To me, writing a novel is like being at a horrible monthlong family reunion. There is no escape, and you’re surrounded by the same people all the time. Writing a short story is like stopping at a bar and having one drink. You can minimize the damage.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise about being published?

A: It’s so fun! I was worried that I would lose the personal responses I got when I wrote short stories, but that hasn’t been the case. It has been wonderful.

Q: Tell us about the novel you are working on.

A: It is very different from my story collection. The narrator is a man, and he is married to an over-the-top extrovert. Is that type of person, who is fun and exciting to be with but doesn’t stop talking, a good choice for a life partner?

 

SWEET RUIN by Cathi Hanauer

First, a final reminder about the first EDIWTB online book club. Hyperion has generously agreed to send review copies of A Middle Place, which I wrote about here, to anyone who’d like to read it.  A few weeks after we’ve all received the book, I’ll post a review of it here, and those who have read it will hopefully keep the conversation going in the comments.  I have already submitted a bunch of names to Hyperion, and will send along any more that I receive at gweiswasser@gmail.com in the next day or two. If the book club goes well, I’d like to make it a regular feature – though in the future I will hopefully have more control over picking the book. I appreciate Hyperion’s generous offer, and I hope that other publishers will agree to provide review copies, but I’d also like to choose the books rather than have them determined by which books are sent to me. (Anyone who has been in a book club with me knows that I am a control freak when it comes to picking books!)


Second, I finished a book today that I really liked. If yu’re a guy, you can probably stop reading right here (I know there are some of you out there who are sick of my female protagonists).  Sweet Ruin, by Cathi Hanauer, is a novel about Elayna, a suburban mom in her mid 30s living in a New Jersey suburb outside New York City. She has a 6-year old daughter and also lost a son a few days after he was born. The book opens 2 years after her son’s death, as she is slowly emerging from her fog of grief.  It explores her flawed marriage, her grief and depression, her relationship with her difficult father, her experience as a mother to her daughter Hazel, suburban parenting, and her affair with Kevin, a young man across the street who falls in love with her.

This book was difficult to put down. I love Hanauer’s writing. Her little observations about motherhood and marriage – wow. Familiar territory. It’s not a perfect book – I think that Elayna’s relationship with Kevin isn’t that convincing in the end. But I like that her characters aren’t painted in black and white. No one’s a villain. Hanauer successfully makes most of her characters sympathetic, even when they are fighting with or hurting each other. This is real life in all its messy, unpredictable, ever-changing beauty.

I just read a review of Sweet Ruin at the Mommy Writer Blog. Check it out – I heartily agree with her. This is a highly enjoyable book that’s several steps above chick lit.

I’d love to hear from others who have read this book.