book review: fates and furies

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Riverhead Books, 390pp.
Published September 15, 2015

Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years.

At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed.

A dichotomy of a book, I nearly gave up on Fates and Furies. It received a lot of attention from critics upon its release, ultimately garnering a National Book Award nomination, and I can see why. It's written in a style I like to refer to as "artistic prose": incomplete sentences and run-ons mix together in a tumble of words meant to approximate stream of consciousness. In the best passages this lends urgency, but more often it's a confusing and sophomoric illusion of depth.

The story itself also screams "awards contender" much in the same way certain December film releases are wont to do. It examines a marriage that was lived differently than it was observed, even between husband and wife. We first meet the husband, Lotto. His perspective represents the "fates" portion of the story and yes, the choice of name indicates just how subtle the rest of the novel will be. After a troubled childhood of loss and acting out, he's sent away for boarding school, where he witnesses a terrible tragedy. A misfit among the children of New England society, Lotto gets by with an almost supernatural gift of charm; this serves him well in college too, where, after a lengthy string of dalliances, he meets Mathilde.

Unfortunately for the reader, Lotto is dull as a post and you must get through his chapters before the literary treat that is his wife. Apropos to his name and chapter heading, Lotto's life is punctuated by good fortune—or the illusion of it, as the case may be—that elevates him from a failed actor to an accomplished playwright. When faced with hardship he bemoans the unfairness of it, paralyzed, until his wife or divine influence steps in to remedy matters. It's difficult to enjoy such passive characters, particularly those with Lotto's blend of privilege and obliviousness. Were the entirety of Fates and Furies written from his perspective, it would have easily become a DNF title.

However, once the reader discovers Mathilde's perspective everything takes on a refreshing dynamism. To go into detail risks spoiling some of the juicier twists that wrinkle the latter half, but on the whole I feel that my patience with Lotto was rewarded with the "furies" segment. This is where the dichotomy enters in: by himself, Lotto bores; yet perhaps Mathilde would have as well, if the narrative never stepped away from her. This duality is certainly another reflection on the nature of marriage and how one partner can never truly, fully know the other. It calls into question simple truths without flashy schoolyard philosophy. Without this push-pull, love-hate relationship embedded in Fates and Furies I doubt it would have gained a fraction of the attention. It frustrates and challenges almost to the point of giving up—like marriage, at times—but ultimately rewards those who remain for their efforts.


This book was one of my twelve selections (or two alternates) for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge. You can read more about the challenge and follow my progress throughout the year here.

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