Thursday, March 24, 2016

Review of "Fates and Furies" by Lauren Groff


 

As the book opens Lotto and Mathilde, graduating seniors at artsy Vassar College, have met, fallen in love, and married - all in the space of two weeks. And they're doing what newlyweds do.

From there we pause temporarily and go back in time to learn how Lotto's parents met, wed, and had Lotto and his sister. Lotto grew up in a wealthy Florida family where he hummed along quite happily until he lost his dad and became a teen. Wild friends and underage sex then alarmed Lotto's religious mother Antoinette, who shipped him off to boarding school in New Hampshire. There, Lotto was a difficult, lonely, acne-scarred student who was never permitted visits home.

In college, Lotto - extremely tall and not quite handsome - happily seduced almost every girl he met and took up acting. By his senior year Lotto hadn't seen his mother in many years, though his aunt and sister visited on occasion. Lotto had also reconnected with a sketchy pal from his teens who was destined to become a perpetual hanger-on.

When Lotto married Mathilde he hoped his mother would become a more integral part of his life, but Antoinette - furious about the whirlwind romance and Lotto's choice of bride- cut him off completely, rendering him essentially penniless.

In the first section of the book we follow the married couple as they move to New York and Lotto struggles to establish an acting career. Unable to gain much traction as an actor, Lotto relies on Mathilde to support them - which she does with semi-professional jobs that barely pay for food and shelter. Lotto and Mathilde would probably starve if Lotto's loving little sister didn't save up her generous allowance and donate it to the duo. Still, Mathilde seems quite willing to suffer hardships for her much loved husband.

Eventually Lotto becomes a successful playwright with scripts reminiscent of Greek tragedies, some of which are inspired by Lotto's family. Mathilde remains a stalwart helpmate but Lotto seems oblivious to how she's sacrificed for him and helped him. Moreover, Lotto has the whiff of a sexist about him and seems to denigratre female capabilities in general. When he extolls childbirth as 'women's creativity' (much more valuable than merely writing plays) this is a huge mistake, exacerbated by the fact the Lotto and Mathilde are childless.

(Reviewers note: The attitude that childbirth is the highest calling on Earth always irritates me. Yes, it's laudable to have children but most people can do it. On the other hand, it's quite difficult - and rare - to think up the theory of relativity, compose a concert, paint a masterpiece, become a world class athlete, etc.)

Lotto and Mathilde are hardly ever apart save for a spell when Lotto attends a writer's retreat with a talented young composer. Lotto hopes to create an opera with the music genius and keeps postponing his return home, to the chagrin of Mathilde (and the couple's dog 'God').

Still, Lotto and Mathilde march on through a quarter century of marriage, through highs and lows, and seem to greatly enjoy their lives - which involves lots of sex, wild parties, friends, fans, good wine, fine food, travel, etc. What's not to like?

In the second section of the book the author switches her attenton to Mathilde, whose appearance is probably what the French call 'jolie laide'. Some people find Mathilde's six-foot-tall, lanky, blonde appearance stunning while others find her plain and unattractive. In any case, we follow Mathilde through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and married lfe.

And quite a shock it is. Dubbed 'devil child' when she's four years old Mathilde is brought up by a series of less-than-reputable relatives. Her unusual upbringing and psychological makeup result in Mathilde's being preternaturally self-sufficient, self-protective, and wily. Without giving away spoilers I'll just say that Lotto and Mathilde's marriage looks very different from her point of view. And it's best not to get on Mathilde's bad side....EVER.

All in all, Fates and Furies is a beautifully written, engaging (and sometimes enraging) story about a marriage with a LOT of secrets. There are a wide array of riveting characters, some likable and some detestable. For me there were too many cringe-worthy references to people licking each other, wanting to eat each other (not what you're thinking), having sex on the beach, in the house, at parties, with strangers, and so on.

If I'd rated the book after Lotto's section, I would have given it 3 stars. Mathilde is such a fascinating charcter, though, that it earned an extra star.

I'd recommend the book to readers who enjoy literary fiction.

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