Fates and Furies seems to be two separate novels, Fates, the story of Lotto, Lancelot Satterwhite, privileged son of the South who went to Vassar, married a beautiful woman, was disinherited for it it and went on to success and fame as a playwright. Then there is Furies, the story of Mathilde, child of deprivation and betrayal, who went to Vassar, married Lotto, and who manipulated events to ensure his success and whom her husband never really knew. Together, the book is the story of a marriage.
Of course, it seems it is also the story of gender roles and that is certainly the impression you get reading the first half of the novel which focuses on Lotto. He even manages to score one of those potentially career-ending moments during a panel discussion when he talks about women putting their creative energy into raising children. He frequently calls his wife a saint. He can’t be a misogynist, he loves women, he thinks his wife is a saint. But you realize, that as much as he adores his wife and as much as he remains loyal to her, he never really knows her.
But this cannot be about gender because even though Lotto embodies many of the tropes of “typical man” Mathilde embodies nothing of the “typical woman” – nothing. In the second half, in Furies, we realize the wonderful Mathilde is herself a Fury.
Her life story is far too melodramatic to be credible. It’s like taking every period drama you can think of and mixing them into a hot stew of misery. Mathilde’s story is almost cartoonish. There is even a disguise-wearing detective and convoluted revenge schemes. Good grief, her mother was even a fishwife. Mathilde is written as an unnatural child – with even more unnatural parents. I almost think it would be useful to read the first part again with the revelations of the second to inform and explain so much. Everything is different when you read the second half.
Maybe there is a lesson there – that even people who are very much in love and who are bound together for years in a successful marriage cannot know each other, but then, even if that is Groff’s point, it does not work, because no one can know Mathilde. Every fiber of her being resists being known. In fact, all we know in the end is that Mathilde would very much like to do it over and let Lotto know her, really know her.
I feel very indecisive, tempted to rate this book anywhere from a five – for the engrossing, driving characters that grabbed me and held me from the first page and the magical prose and vibrant metaphors. Then I think how the second half of the book unravels the first, which I know is the point, but undoes that magic that Groff achieved in the first half. I also remember the somewhat silly and indulgent play summaries that described no plays I wanted to see.
I also think about the improbability of Mathilde’s story. Perhaps it is privilege that makes her story so improbable. Those of us who, like Lotto, grew up loved and protected may see it as improbable, but perhaps if we tease it out. Knowing what her grandmother was like, maybe that changes what her mother was like and explains her mother being able to banish her, and maybe that explains her uncle as well and all of them together explain her ability to make the choices she made. I don’t know. It still seems like a precariously built house of cards. There are too many players playing the long game.
So why am I giving it four stars? Because the writing is rich enough to trump any holes in the plot. It is fast-paced and sucks you in. I sat down to read it for “just a few minutes” and did not look up until 150 pages later. I then read until the wee hours to finish it. I enjoyed reading it. It was thinking about it that is harder, trying to reconcile the Mathilde of the first with the Mathilde of the second, trying to decide if she is credible, wondering why I like her so much more than Lotto even after I know her secrets. Maybe her secrets are why I like her, knowing that despite her tremendous will, she had a heart this desperate need for family, love and friendship and constantly denied herself the chance to really satisfy that need.