Why You Must Read Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies”

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff
Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

PLEASE NOTE: Possible mild spoiler alert.

I’ve read all of Lauren Groff’s books to date: her story collection Delicate Edible Birds and her novels, The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia and now Fates and Furies. I may have read the collection’s title story, “Delicate Edible Birds,” when it was first published in Glimmer Train (Spring 2009, #70) or maybe it was in BASS 2010. Anyway, I liked that story so much, its historical context, the way you’re never quite sure you understand all of the influences on the lone female WWII war correspondent traveling with a bunch of men who decides (or is she coerced by the men? We only know she doesn’t think it has anything to do with courage) to be raped by a captor in order to save them all from the Nazis. In spite of (or maybe a result of?) the gravity of that plot, the image of the story that sticks with me to this day is one of people at some kind of banquet in the 1930’s (long before these journalists’ ordeal) eating ortolans (apparently small finches) WHOLE–beaks, heads, brains, guts–but that’s not the best part. The best part was how Groff described the diners each covering their face with a napkin while they chowed down the bird.

If that makes you want to read everything else this remarkable writer has out on the shelves, join the club.

Her first two novels, about a prehistoric monster appearing in a lake and an upstate New York commune, respectively, did not disappoint. Fates and Furies is about neither prehistoric monsters (although it may be about present ones) nor communes (although there is TONS of sex) and while I would highly recommend it, it is not a particularly easy read. On the surface, it’s about the 20+ year marriage of college lovers Lancelot and Mathilde, told, the reader eventually discovers, from more-or-less husbandly and wifely points of view that often differ. Let’s say W-I-D-E-L-Y. That’s what a lot of reviews say, anyway, that the book is about a marriage, but I’m not sure that’s what it’s really about.

At this point you should be warned that (and yes, this IS related) I LOVE Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Susanna Sonnenberg of The San Francisco Chronicle writes:

Ferrante writes with a ferocious, intimate urgency that is a celebration of anger. Ferrante is terribly good with anger, a very specific sort of wrath harbored by women, who are so often not allowed to give voice to it. We are angry, a lot of the time, at the position we’re in—whether it’s as wife, daughter, mother, friend—and I can think of no other woman writing who is so swift and gorgeous in this rage, so bracingly fearless in mining fury.

With that in mind, here’s what I think Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is about:

Part I, Fates: Lancelot’s part. Lancelot later assumes the nickname Lotto (nicely fate-related!). The Lancelot/Lotto/male point of view in this first half of the book is about fate: about destiny, chance, luck (most of it, for Lotto, good). In Greek mythology,

...the Fates were any of three goddesses who determined human destinies, and in particular the span of a person’s life and his allotment of misery and suffering.

Lancelot/Lotto takes some knocks as a boy but for the most part he is a privileged womanizer and narcissist who, like most narcissists, couldn’t tell his privilege or his luck from the nose on his face (or other anatomy). (OK, I don’t much like Lotto.)

Part II, Furies: Mathilde’s part. Mathilde (which means ‘strength in battle’) is a name assumed by Aurelie, whom we do not meet until the second half of the book. Aurelie, by the way, is the feminine form of Aurelius, meaning golden or gilded. She’s golden, that is, until she is compelled to change her name to Mathilde (actually, to ANYTHING ELSE); she randomly, desperately picks the name of another girl in her class when the boys at school in America (to where she has been involuntarily displaced from her birth country, France) tease her with chants of the sexually charged “Orally, orally!” The Mathilde/Aurelie/female point of view in the second half of this book is, perhaps predictably, about fury: about rage, anger, wrath. In Greek mythology,

…the Furies were female spirits of justice and vengeance. They were also called the Erinyes (angry ones). Known especially for pursuing people who had murdered family members, the Furies punished their victims by driving them mad. When not punishing wrongdoers on earth, they lived in the underworld and tortured the damned.

I think Fates and Furies is about privileged males’ inappropriate (and pretty much taken for granted) control of human destiny and the inevitably ensuing female fury about their destiny’s manipulation. I’m not alone, I think, in this assessment. Joanna Scutt in The Guardian, writes,

Groff’s novel also keenly probes the different ways that men’s and women’s creativity and human value are assessed. At some point, a successful, middle-aged, and more than lightly sozzled Lotto gives a speech in which he characterizes men as intellectual and women as physical creators. (My note: Exclusively. That is, like, “Men make art and women make babies.” Mathilde is right there when he makes the speech. Call me crazy, but I’m not buying that much of anything, epic sex included, could make me stay married to a guy who says this, even if he IS drunk).

Reviews of the book have been very positive (New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, among many others). To me, the rare criticism I’ve seen (e.g., Maureen Corrigan @NPR)–that the characters aren’t particularly well-developed, that the book is driven more by constraints of plot and structure than by character–doesn’t really pack much of a punch. Personally, I didn’t ever much like either golden-boy Lotto OR once-golden, now vengeful Mathilde, and I don’t find their marriage all that believable or laudable. Mathilde’s long (and secret) history of horrible sexual exploitation and the way she’s entirely unfairly blamed for a childhood tragedy, both revealed in the second half of the book, did break my heart. That Lancelot/Lotto has mindless, guiltless, all’s-fair-in-consensual-sex sex with just about everything that moves only before he’s married, and that theoretically they are a happily monogamous couple for 20+ years, in the end are things I don’t much care about.

What I care more about, what I’m disappointed in myself about, is that I read the first half of the book with only mild disbelief and impatience.

See what you think, and let me know.

5 Comments

  1. I really loved it! It is a hard read in some ways, but I allowed myself to not get to bogged down and just went into the narrative plunge. I felt like I was with Groff on what John Gardner describes as the narrative dream. (That was a total paraphrase and maybe even referencing the wrong writer.)

    Your analysis was really smart and I was glad to hear what a few other critics thought too since I had not read any reviews yet.

    The second half was WOW. It was better than the first . . . or maybe the second allows us to understand and appreciate the first half in a different way. I sort of enjoyed in a sick way the tension and little notes between Mathilde and her mother-in-law. The two women of power of Lotto . . .

    1. I definitely liked the 2nd half better. And it made me very uneasy with myself because I should have wondered more about Lotto’s story. I feel I made some of his sexist, privileged assumptions right along with him. Thanks for reading and commenting, Nina.

  2. Also, I do wonder which version of Mathilde’s story with the baby brother is true. That part was heartbreaking. The cruelty of the parents– even their fictional cruelty–haunted me as I read the book and still does even thinking about it now. OH! And what do you think the uncle was up to? Mafia?

    1. Sorry I didn’t get this last night, Nina–went to bed! Yes, that was a little odd, to tell 2 different stories of what happened to her little brother, and I thought about it obsessively, too. (No wonder we’re friends.) I’m a little worried an editor said to Groff–You’ve got to soften this story of what Aurelie did to her brother, because otherwise she’ll garner no sympathy (hence the addition of another, “gentler” version). How incredibly awful would that be, that people wouldn’t get that a 4 year-olds’ judgment is not judgment, it’s impulse? Anyway, this is all only my dark, obsessive musings on “How would I react, God forbid?” to such a tragic situation. Yes, and the creepy uncle, Mafia or something like that, I suppose. OK, now I have one for you: Did you think we were supposed to think they were happy in this marriage? In one review Groff says she wanted them to be faithful to each other. Why do you think she set up Lotto to be such a womanizer before they were married, then? I found I didn’t believe much was good about that marriage, presumed fidelity or no.

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