Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

This was one of those weird books where I couldn’t really decide if I loved or hated it. I still haven’t quite figured that out!

On one level, this is clearly an incredible work of art. Groff is simply of the best contemporary writers of literary fiction–her prose is stunning, her metaphors and descriptions so carefully crafted and lovingly teased out that it’s a little mind-boggling. She’s one of the authors whose turns of phrases you’re kicking yourself for not having come up with yourself, but so original that you know you probably never could have thought of them anyway. This is a book that would require several re-readings to fully grasp every phrase, every nuance, every detail. There’s a lot to parse through, so much so that reading this became almost intoxicating, overwhelming with the sheer vastness of her linguistic gifts. Groff knows how to put together a sentence, and though her skills have always been evident in her other books, this novel is truly a masterpiece.

Such beautiful writing is important here, because the plot, and the characters, represent a form of ugliness that’s a little hard to comprehend. It’s a really interesting juxtaposition, a feeling of being captivated by her words but repelled by the story she’s telling. I’m not opposed to unlikable protagonists; I would say most of my favorite characters in literature are the misanthropes, the creeps, the selfish and ambitious. But there was something about Groff’s characterization (virtually across the board) that got under my skin in a way I didn’t really like. Maybe it was that she seems to revel in the grotesque, keeping her characters just this side of realistic to make them seem a little larger-than-life, people still recognizable as humans, but distorted until they’re not quite real. There was a bizarre fairy-tale quality here, a sense that this could never really happen, but her observations about people and relationships are so spot-on at times that it hits a little too close for comfort.

Fates and Furies plays on the concept of the unreliable narrator, by presenting two sides to one marriage, that of Lotto and Mathilde. They’re an odd, magnetic couple, married within weeks of meeting; Lotto is destined for greatness, and Mathilde is the angel by his side. They’re fascinating characters, but both utterly loathsome, and again, everything they did was tinged, at least for me, with the thought that “real people don’t act this way.” I think part of my problem was that I couldn’t understand what, ultimately, Groff was trying to say. She spends the whole second half of the book tearing apart everything the reader has come to believe in the first half, and it left me feeling like I didn’t understand the point. I couldn’t decide what to make of Lotto/Mathilde, whether they were truly a grand love story that transcended the the lies and the omissions, or whether it was a sham, a fake relationship built on a foundation of untruths. Part of that may have been that it was never clear to me why they’d love one another, beyond their sexual chemistry–it seemed like a pair of narcissists in love with reflections of themselves, or skewed perceptions of the person they each want their partner to be. Maybe that’s the point–it was hard to sympathize with or understand either side, because each felt like a perception rather than a fully human being. As I think about it more, it’s clear that we only really know the characters in relation to one another, that both their lives are only moments leading up to, and away from, their marriage. And that’s where I wonder what Groff was going for, if this singular focus on their union, this unbreakable bond between two unlikely people, was meant to be real love.

This book reminded me a little bit of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom–dissecting perfection to take an unpleasant look at the truths we may know about but choose not to talk about. It makes for an uncomfortable, often unpleasant read, and left me, at least, with a weird sense of depression and an ache in my stomach. Objectively, yes, this is a very good book; it’s just not necessarily the type of book that is fun to read. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, and for me that can changed based on the day or my mood. I can sometimes handle the disturbing, the weird, the uncomfortable, but I just happened to read this during one of the times when I could have used some levity, and that skews my perception of it. I just wish there’d been a glimpse of light, a sliver of hope to cut through the unrelenting bleakness–that might have been the thing to push me firmly into “loving this book” territory. But this was a book about bad people doing bad things and living out a bad relationship, and its dark worldview was just a little too much for me.

Ultimately, this is a really interesting book, and certainly one of the better ones I’ve read in a while. I would recommend it as a work of art, a case study in superb modern writing, a book from one of our best contemporary novelists (this has been nominated for the Mann Booker prize, and is getting a lot of buzz, deservedly so). It’s an intense read, but a captivating one, and it absolutely deserves to be picked up–just make sure you have a palate cleanser to consume afterwards to remind you that the world is actually an okay place.

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