Margot McGovern reviews Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, a tragic love story in modern America.
A thick drizzle from the sky, like a curtain’s sudden sweeping. The seabirds stopped their turning, the ocean went mute. House lights over the water dimmed to gray.
Two people were coming up the beach. She was fair and sharp in a green bikini, though it was May in Maine and cold. He was tall, vivid; a light flickered in him that caught the eye and held it. Their names were Lotto and Mathilde.
From the outset, Fates and Furies sparks with theatrical flair: a tale of mythological proportions taken from the stars and strung together with dramatic irony, untimely deaths, family secrets, fatal misunderstandings—all the good stuff. It’s the story of a marriage: two bright young things drawn together, one an agent of Fate the other of Fury. Lotto is the shining hero—charismatic, if a little dim—and destined for greatness. Mathilde is the grit to his glitter, and their love is millennia of romantic myth distilled. But then there’s Chollie, twin of Lotto’s ill-fated childhood sweetheart, slithering slug-like through the narrative, leaving a trail of revulsion and oozing antagonistic intent.
Lotto and Mathilde’s twenty-four year marriage is narrated in two parts, his story, then hers. Lotto’s tale is almost too smooth. He has his troubles, sure, but they have a way of turning in his favour. He’s cursed with the tragic hero’s bold sense of entitlement; things will work out because of who he is. And when times are bad—when his acting career stalls, when he slides into a depression while recovering from an injury—he sinks into inaction, incapable of forward motion until luck (or his wife) set him back on his feet and nudge him on.
When the story volleys to Mathilde, the reader glimpses the tireless industry that powers Lotto’s success, the fevered, kinetic energy that gives his stillness its power. His luck as a playwright turns on Mathidle editing his manuscripts in the closet while he sleeps, on her calling in favours to book theatres and fill seats, on her quiet but weighted conversations with actors, directors and producers. When he languishes, she slips backstage, negotiating and manipulating to bring him success and restore his spirits.
The great tragedy of the story is that while Lotto loves his wife, he is blind to her work and in a moment of vulnerability misconstrues her sacrifices as betrayal. He holds her to standards of purity and simplicity he rejects in himself and readily recasts her as the villain when she reveals a depth and complexity of character beyond the ‘good woman’ role he expects her to play.
Fates and Furies is ambitious and the scope of Groff’s vision admirable. Her prose enchants, seamlessly blending ancient myth with the brash colour and chaos of twentieth century America. However, to call upon the great tragedies and give voice to the Moirai themselves might be viewed as hubris, and if this story has a fatal flaw, it’s that it’s too clever. I love a good Greek tragedy, but even I found the inclusion of Lotto’s contemporary operatic retelling of Antigone a touch precious. That said, I have a great deal of respect for a writer who’s not afraid to set high expectations for her reader, and Groff rewards the persistent with a sprawling, sparkling literary odyssey of love and loss.
Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Fates and Furies is available through Amazon (Kindle), Book Depository and Kobo.
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