Puzzled by Fates & Furies

What comes next is going to be super spoiler-y. If that kind of thing pisses you off. Stop now.

When I read that Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies was nominated for a National Book Award, I wanted to stop reading it right that second. I don’t have a good record with the National Book Award and its nominees for the prestigious fiction prize. When I scroll through the list of past nominees and winners I’m all “Hated it. Hated it. Ugh, barf. Hated it.”

It seems the people who award these things have a penchant for beautifully written, puzzling, frustrating stories where not a lot actually happens. So it goes with Lauren Groff’s latest.

In this one we get the story of the marriage between Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder, a tall, shiny beautiful couple who met and married during the last few weeks of their time at Vasser.

The first 2/3 of the book is told from Lotto’s point of view. We see his early beginnings in Florida, his banishment from the family, his golden-boy days of boarding school and college, how he struggles outside the warm confines of college, and then his slow rise to fame and fortune as a renowned playwright. All along, good ol’ Mathilde is there to support him in every way possible.
fatesandfuries
The last third of the book is told from Mathilde’s point of view and pretty much upends everything we’ve learned from Lotto. She’s not Mathilde at all, in fact she’s Aurelie, a former-French girl who was banished from her family because of a horrible accident when she was still a toddler, an accident her family blamed her for. She never tells Lotto any of this, or the fact that she traded sex for tuition from a wealthy art dealer all through college. In fact, Mathilde keeps her entire past from her husband.

This Mathilde at the end of the book is all fire and fang and not all the Mathilde Lotto told us about.

So, what the fuck?

This book puzzles me. I’m not sure what to make of this story. I’m not sure why Lauren Groff, whose previous work I love, has chosen to tell the story in this way. What is she trying to say?

We learn pretty late that Mathilde has orchestrated quite a few things in Lotto’s life. . . from heavily editing his first, wildly-popular play to bribing her creepy uncle for the money to finance it, yet she never tells Lotto about any of these machinations. Why? I don’t understand why she would do all this and keep it under wraps. I mean, it’s obvious Mathilde’s got some issues, but come on!

I can’t figure out what this is supposed to mean. As Mathilde is unspooling her story for the reader she never once wavers about her love for Lotto, even when she leaves him briefly (unbeknownst to him). Are we, the reader, supposed to believe that she was really in love? So in love that she had to hide her past from him? And what kind of love is that where you can’t share those kinds of things with your partner? It’s not like Lotto wouldn’t understand, hell, he was pretty much banished from his family too. Isn’t that something they could have bonded over?

Is the point of this story that marriage is nothing but two strangers who have decided to put up with each other because of reasons and that you can’t really ever truly know the person you are sleeping next to? Is the moral that men are hapless, clueless, self-involved hunks of meat and women are the ultimate, self-sacrificing puppet masters?

I just don’t get it, and I want to get it because I love Lauren Groff’s writing.

And what was all that revenge-seeking on Chollie? Can someone who read the book explain that to me? And then the long lost kid? And why was Mathilde so weirded out by the little red-headed Canadian composer boy?

And why?
And why?
And why?

Why don’t I get this book? What am I missing?

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3 Comments

  1. AC 17.Feb.16 at 1:29 pm

    100% this! Admittedly I listened to the audiobook, but I’ve listened and re-listened, and cannot for the life of me figure out the deal with the Chollie revenge issues… Chollie originally vowed revenge on…Lotto, for unknowingly screwing up his twin sister, and then later on Mathilde, for appearing to be a cheating skank to his “best friend”? So Chollie tells Lotto XX years later and and and… Someone, please explain this to me. It has been 3 months and I am still scouring the internet for answers to some of this…

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  2. Lauren K. 04.Nov.16 at 1:30 pm

    You have to appreciate a story that is grounded in human psychology, and not as much about “what happened” – I think that’s why the people who love this book love it. Chollie expressed his jealousy of Mathilde early on- he and Mathilde were similar in that they were wounded from their childhoods and felt safe in being loved by Lotto. As Chollie put it, Lotto “loved you for exactly who you were,” and he had resented Mathilde ever since he saw her dining with Ariel and understood their raunchy relationship by the way she appeared withdrawn and dressed provocatively. Mathilde didn’t want to lose Lotto’s affections and focus- we see how much he idolizes Mathilde in the Fates section – to Leo the composer. As Mathilde says, Lotto was a heterosexual, but he had always been lustful and could easily become entranced by someone’s brilliance. As far as the long lost son, I believe this is to function in a few different ways- it gives more impetus to why Chollie would seek revenge (for his sister), it provides yet another example of the kind of “immense love” between parent and child (though it was deeply immoral for Antoinette to do what she did) that Mathilde doesn’t understand, and the discovery is provided by Sally & Rachel who deliver the knews to Mathilde with complete acceptance of all her dark secrets…

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  3. Bob Wolfson 26.Aug.17 at 10:29 pm

    I know it was last year’s sensation, but I just picked it up this week. It’s an intriguing book, beautifully written and solidly structured, but yeah, I found some of the characterizations to be overly simple, and thus contrived.

    As I understand it, little 4 year-old A is jealous of her baby brother whose arrival robs her of her parents’ undiluted doting. When he lovingly crawls into her bed, she inchingly nudges him to roll off the side. Note it’s not a shove, just a little sly maneuvering that preserves plausible deniability.

    Does she deliberately lure him to the head of the stairs knowing that she can, with the slightest of wavers when he reaches to her for stability, send him “accidentally” tumbling down the stairs? Years later, she is not sure, and remembers the event two ways – watching him fall of his own accord, and with her planning.

    Regardless, her 10 year-old cousin saw and reported the event, A’s parents drew the darker conclusion, and they abandoned her – which is to say they took love away from her, and thus she knew herself to be unlovable. I think we are to accept that this psychosis becomes her bedrock: whoever knows her cannot love her.

    And yet she craves to be loved and to give love, so Groff lets her win the Lotto. She cares for him as for a child because he’s the only one she will let herself have. Meanwhile L sees her as perfect (though Groff portrays him as the pure one, the light of everyone’s life, unable to act unlovingly toward anyone) and adores her completely. It’s as close to happiness as M is going to let herself get. She will not take the risk to be the warm M she wishes she could be, the one that would say “yes, sure, I’ll trust in you L”.

    M is tight, like a fist. She’s wrapped around the pain of losing-love-because-she’s-unlovable. She will not open up, she will control, not submit. She balances this with loving L by engineering their lives to produce his comfort, success, and happiness. And she makes sacrifices to do so: how hard it must have been to beg Ariel for a job; how buried she must have kept her ego, not taking any credit for L’s plays. But her psychosis remains: she will not reveal herself because then L wouldn’t love her.

    I think I can believe in A/M, though parts of her story seem, like I said, contrived. Why the prostitute grandma? Why the shady uncle? Is Groff channeling Dickens or a Bronte? And the business arrangement with Arial – was his last name Gray? But I’ve known people hiding secrets at their core. I’ve known people mentally trapped in childhood trauma, turning memory against today, damaged and -ugly in self-perception. M’s trauma and motivations could be real.

    Separately, there’s Chollie, and he’s out for revenge, blaming L for the loss of his twin Gwennie. (Lancelot and Gwennie. Sounds familiar.) He initially wants L’s money, and when M gets in his way (Exactly how? L still loves him.) he decides to take his vengeance out on her, too. Exactly why he waits 26 years, I don’t know. M asks “why now”, but C’s answer – because if he waited longer L might fall out of love with M in her unlovely old age anyway – doesn’t satisfy.

    C is a caricature. Ugly and unpleasant. Nobody likes him. Yet he becomes rich via a Ponzi scheme? I don’t believe it. The people who get people to invest money are smooth-talkers. They schmooze, not offend. They gain trust, and nobody trusted C. I don’t doubt that a real-life scam artist could have a Jekyll and Hyde personality, but since Groff offers no glimpse of an endearing C-side (however false it might be) I’m just unable to think of C as anything more than a plot device, and a weak one at that.

    (But, to be fair, a work named “Fates and Furies” that features Greek myths and themes is, perhaps, entitled to be driven forward by purely symbolic actors. Could C be some sort of god playing human to screw L and M, to humble them, to clip their wings? Was this a novel, or a play (whether comedy or tragedy), or a neo-fable? Here, I’m afraid, Groff may be too clever, and perhaps too erudite, for me. I don’t know enough about Oedipus, Antigone and ancient theatre to get the many references and metas that might be relevant.)

    In turn, M’s aborted attempt to destroy C in payback seems like another device just intended to bring us back to M’s central dialectic. I guess it’s fine that when she discovers L has a son, Roland, she is forced to decide whether to ruin C or let him off the hook to become Roland’s affectionate uncle. In deciding to give Roland the gift of C’s love, M once more reveals true love for L (and for Roland, and perhaps even C). Perhaps this is cathartic for her, to choose the open hand and not the fist. Maybe that bit of character development makes sense for her arc.

    On the other hand, what the hell would make M think that C would love Roland? Because he so loved Gwinnie he needs must love her child? Maybe, but I don’t see how C is cast as being anything other than a narcissistic lover. He doesn’t love L, who loves him like a brother. He doesn’t love his wife.

    Perhaps we are meant to think that M puts revenge aside on the mere hope of doing something good for Roland. That, too, could develop her arc, and if it’s just a Hail Mary then maybe it doesn’t matter what she thinks of C. But then, it would seem like it ought to have been a liberating “oh hell, go for it” moment, which we’re told M, at her death, regrets she never had.
    So overall, this plot twist didn’t really ring very true, as much as it plays to the book’s fundamental love themes.

    And then there’s L. Where does he come from? As mentioned earlier, he’s pure – why? He’s brilliant, handsome, strong (fuckin’ crew!), talented, devoted, friendly to a fault, innocent, unsuspicious, faithful, vulnerable, etc. OK, he’s also egotistical, has acne, is clueless, and is sometimes insensitive in his cluelessness, but surely he’s not a believably balanced individual of any sort, is he?

    Why does he remain so innocent all his life? Why doesn’t anything terrible happen to shake him awake to the real world, where bumper stickers tell the “shit happens” truth? Coming face to face with a classmate’s suicide doesn’t do it. Being told to his face he’s a failure as an actor doesn’t do it. Being disinherited doesn’t do it. Oh, he’s just lucky?!? Maybe he’s a Targarian and walks through fire, too.

    Overnight a successful playwright? Coming from a writer? Really?

    I’m not saying L is impossible. Paul Erdos was a brilliant, lovable, eccentric, and hopelessly helpless mathematician. Friends shuttled him around the world, school to lecture to engagement, housing him, feeding him, dressing him, and making all his arrangements. All he ever had to do was be brilliant, lovable, and eccentric. But I probably oversimplify, and probably so has Groff. L comes off as a smarter, sexier Forrest Gump. A metaphor, nothing more?

    And Antoinette, out of a Tennessee Williams play? Her effect on L is thinly sketched, and in the long run she’s apparently just there to be another thing that wasn’t what L thought. We’re supposed to accept that L rejects her because he thinks she rejected him, yet M has to repeatedly talk him out of visiting her. (For a quarter century! Right.) And we only learn that from her. Never, in his part of the book, does L mention that he regularly wants to go visit Antoinette and doesn’t get to for this or that reason.

    And Sallie and Rachel, just there for more examples of how women love and nurture? Taking care of Antoinette, but hiding their true actions from her? Shades of M’s behavior toward L! Why’d they wait so long to tell M how they were protected her from Antoinette? Why didn’t they tell L? Why doesn’t Groff give us the reasons?

    This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. In the end, I did, though it wasn’t until the half-way point that I decided it was going somewhere. (For a while it seemed like a lesser “Garp”.) I found it clever, crafted, and affecting. And there doesn’t have to be more than that. But I didn’t find it “tight” or realistic in the clever, crafted and affecting way of a book like, say Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” or “Poisonwood Bible”.

    But maybe it wasn’t supposed to be. Read as a modern Greek tragedy/comedy it could be forgiven if realism took second place to thematic content. I wish it were more clearly one or the other, but maybe that’s just Groff fucking with us… the book does, after all, explicitly acknowledge ambiguity and multiple point of view.

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