Lauren Groff’s astonishing novel “Fates and Furies” is a portrait of a marriage. Early on in the book, a teacher tells a class of prep school boys that there’s no difference between tragedy and comedy:
“It’s a question of perspective. Storytelling is a landscape, and tragedy is comedy is drama. It simply depends on how you frame what you’re seeing.”
In the novel’s two sections, “Fates” and “Furies,” Groff cleverly frames the story of a marriage from first the perspective of Lancelot, or Lotto, Satterwhite and then from the point of view of his wife Mathilde.
Beginning with the nearly secret, impulsive marriage of the two 22-year-old Vassar seniors, “Fates” is all about Lotto. Exiled to boarding school from his Florida home by a wildly eccentric, if not crazy, mother, he achieves some success as an actor in high school and in college. After his marriage, his acting career is slow to take off. Mathilde is repeatedly described as a “saint.” She supports them both, after Lotto’s wealthy mother refuses to acknowledge the marriage or give him access to money.
They are a popular, golden couple. Success comes to Lotto after he writes a hit play. More hits follow. Mathilde, it seems, is always there to keep their life running smoothly. “Tragedy. Comedy. It’s all a matter of vision,” Groff reminds readers.
Lotto’s premature and abrupt death at the end of “Furies” provokes one of Groff’s parenthetical insertions into her narrative. It’s a comment that foreshadows what is to come in Mathilde’s story:
“A different life, had Lotto listened to the terror; no glory, no plays, peace, ease, and money. No glamour, children. Which life was better? Not for us to say.”
Lotto, a seductive player before he met Mathilde, remained faithful to her throughout their marriage. Mathilde, too, was faithful. But, as “Furies” unfolds, she is not who she seemed in “Fates.” Her relationship with Lotto from the start was predicated not on instantaneous attraction but on calculation. Marriage, too, it seems is a matter of perspective:
“Paradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely; you know someone entirely…
“She drank a great deal of wine and fell asleep, and when she woke, it was in the middle of the night to a cold bed empty of her husband. That was when she knew, with existential bitterness, that her husband had understood nothing of her.”
In “Fates,” Mathilde quickly goes from being a “saint” to being the surprisingly much more “interesting” half of the couple, as her story is revealed. Lotto loved her on faith, thinking she was a virgin. (She wasn’t.) He knew little of her past, as their present was so momentous. Far from a saint, Mathilde was a fury.
And yet. If nothing else, the couple was bound by a real love and a symbiotic devotion. Mathilde made Lotto his best self. Lotto, in the end, gave her the love and acceptance she unwillingly craved.
“He had seen her and made the leap and swum through the crowd and had taken her hand, this bright boy who was giving her a place to rest. He offered not only his whole laughing self, the past that built him and the warm beating body that moved her with its beauty and the future she felt compressed and waiting, but also the torch he carried before him in the dark, his understanding, dazzling, instant, that there was goodness at her core. With the gift came the bitter seed of regret, the unbridgeable gap between the Mathilde she was and the Mathilde he had seen her to be. A question, in the end, of vision.”
“Fates and Furies” is brilliant. Every carefully composed sentence is beautifully written. It is, from any perspective, a compelling tale that — like life itself — is filled with tragedy and comedy.
“Fates and Furies” is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.