My rating: 4/5 stars
As a reader, I always find marriage a tedious theme in literature. There are so many, after all: the happy marriages, the unfulfilling marriages, the doomed marriages, the volatile marriages, blah blah blah. So just imagine how thrilled I was to find a book, essentially about marriage, that made the theme entertaining and intriguing again.
There has been so much hype about this book in the literary media that I highly doubt I can put a new spin on it. After The New Yorker and The Guardian have done it, you’re hard pressed to glean any new insights. I can, however, offer my thoughts and perspectives no matter how redundant they might be.
Fates and Furies chronicles the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde. Lotto is a “golden boy” heir to a bottled water empire and Mathilde is a mysterious, seductive “ice queen.” The book is split into two sections, the first offering Lotto’s account of their union and his rise from struggling actor to genius playwright. I wanted to like Lotto, I really did. Everyone else seemed to like him. He seeemed to draw people in with his faux-humble exterior. I found him to be arrogant and self-absorbed, however. His half of the novel tended to drag, despite Lauren Groff’s mastery of the lyrical narrative. I was waiting for something, I think. I was waiting for something of substance to happen. Sure, I was excited for them when his career began to take off. I found him to be largely absent from his own life, however. The only way his part works is with the addition of the second half of the novel, his wife Mathilde’s perspective on their marriage and life together.
Not only is he completely clueless to his own place in the world, but Mathilde is little more than a cardboard cutout object of his affection in this portion of the novel. He doesn’t see her at all, which I guess is the whole point of the novel. And isn’t that just the human condition? Wondering if people really see us? Really get us? Lotto doesn’t. Sure, he make some casual comments about feeling guilty that she supported him during his doomed acting career, but this is all so passe and pedestrian. His perspective is certainly not what makes this novel unique.
Meeting Mathilde for the first time, some 200 pages into the book, is like being hit with a ton of bricks. She completely separates herself from any opinion (if any) the reader may have had before reading her words. She is the character in the book who is truly alive, truly aware. Lotto is basically a blank slate compared with this woman. You will not like Mathilde, but I don’t think that matters in a book. I don’t read a novel to be friends with a character. I read when a character is interesting. And Mathilde has that in spades.
I am trying my best not to offer any spoilers because I think that would take so much away from the reading of this book. So I’m sorry if in dissecting Mathilde’s narrative, I let some things go. Mathilde is one of the saddest characters that I have ever read, I think. She is completely devoid of anything resembling human emotion, and yet she yearns for so much of what makes us human. Stability. Security. Happiness. Love. And she’ll do anything to get it. The two parts of the novel are beautifully connected. Some of it is quite predictable, but the depth of her damage is, frankly, shocking.
I once had someone say to me, “Marriage is so weird, isn’t it?” Although I thought it an odd comment at the time (because what could be more tedious and unremarkable than marriage?), I am sure that my thinking has changed somewhat after the read of this book. I get it now. We commit ourselves wholly to another person, but we are still playing a part. Our marriage depends on it. Mathilde, with all her faults, is just playing a part. We may be more capable of true love, emotion, and devotion that she is, but I think she represents something that is alive inside every person. No one will ever truly know us better than ourselves, no matter how much we want to believe that someone is “our other half.” That is simply not true.
There are two narratives in every marriage, whether the difference lies in how a couple views their initial getting-together or what they each bring to the marriage. How many women have wondered if their husband REALLY knows what they do for their family? How many men? I think this book is a great reminder of the importance of self. Knowing and accepting your own narrative. Your own story. Mathilde never loses sight of the person she truly is at heart. She doesn’t try to hide herself from the reader. Every dirty secret, every little misdeed, is laid bare in her portion of the book.
Bottom line: If you can make it through the first half of the book (just wait until you hit the last chapter before the second part. MIND-BLOWING – I had to reread!!!) then the second half will be a page-turner you don’t want to put down. Maybe not worth all the hype it has received, but certainly a read I don’t regret.