By Lauren Groff
All Posts Contain Spoilers
Sometimes, I just don’t have anything to say about a book.
This isn’t because the book is bad, necessarily. On the contrary, some books which are considered Great Books have left me shrugging in this way, with a complete lack of comment. I felt this way when I read ‘The Adventures of Augie March‘ by Saul Bellow, and ‘Neuromancer‘ by William Gibson, and ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being‘ by Milan Kundera (that last one is obviously a joke – I HATED ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’).
And that’s sort of how I feel about ‘Fates and Furies‘: like, ‘Well, that was a book’. I liked it, actually (I think); I read it quickly, with pleasure. I just don’t have anything to say about it.
‘Fates and Furies‘ is the story of a marriage. It is a marriage joined in youth, impetuously, by two badly damaged and beautiful young people right after they graduate from college. The first half of the book is the story of their married life from the point of view of the husband, Lotto (short for Lancelot) Satterwhite, failed actor turned successful playwright, as he adores, fears, and chases his wife through their decades of marriage.
The second half of the novel is told from the point of view of his wife, Mathilde, after Lotto’s sudden death in his forties. Her widowhood sends Mathilde, now without an anchor, reeling into fury and despair, and through her flashbacks we learn how Lotto’s wife saw their marriage. In a sense, we learn what really happened.
Of course, that’s the whole point: in a marriage, as in any human relationship, there is no “what really happened” – there are only the beliefs of the participants and the witnesses. There may be a provable fact here and there, but these matter so much less than you would think, certainly less than you would hope. In the end, our own experience is king, and ‘Fates and Furies‘ is about how discordant that experience can be even in the most “successful” marriage.
Which, of course, is all very true, and well-worn literary territory, and Groff does it nicely, and I just don’t have a ton more to say about it. It’s a good read; it’s compelling. You’re interested in these people, at least while you’re with them, but I doubt that I’ll be thinking about Lotto and Mathilde again. ‘Fates and Furies‘ isn’t the first novel (and won’t be the last) to tell me that love and understanding are two different things, and that all love is, in a way, narcissism, but that it is no less necessary for that.
Maybe it’s just because I’m so cynical by nature, but I just don’t find novels about what an emotional sham marriage is to be at all scandalous, pleasingly or otherwise. We get it, don’t we? We’re all strangers to each other, in the end. This path is so well trod by now that I really can’t muster even the most banal observations about it.
However, it seems as though I am the only one with nothing to say about ‘Fates and Furies‘. Nothing to say, and, in fact, two years too late to say it. Apparently, ‘Fates and Furies’ was the book to read in 2015.
According to The Guardian:
“Not only has Groff’s novel, by the Wall Street Journal’s count, landed on more US year-end best-of lists than any other work of fiction, but Amazon has made it official, stamping its endorsement on Fates and Furies as the retailer’s book of the year. The cherry on the top came from Barack Obama, who earlier this month told People magazine he liked Fates and Furies more than anything else he’d read in 2015.”
Really? Huh. More than anything else?
The Guardian offered this explanation for the book’s wild success:
“On the surface, this premise echoes the familiar observation that even two people who live together intimately can end up feeling they hardly know each other. Given that most fiction is read by women, and that the purchase of a hardcover novel suggests a certain midlife affluence, it’s hardly surprising that so many book buyers would find this theme arresting and easy to relate to. They are at that point in life when they realise that a wedding is less the end of a fairytale than the beginning of a mystery, and sometimes an ugly one.”
Well, I may not have much to say about ‘Fates and Furies’ itself, but I have a lot to say about that.
First of all, I don’t think that ‘Fates and Furies‘ is about the fact that two people who live together intimately can end up feeling they hardly know each other; I think it’s about the fact that two people who live together can feel that they know each other intimately and be completely wrong about that. What is askew between Lotto and Mathilde is not known to them. We are aware of the discrepancy in their understandings of their marriage, but they are not (Lotto, in particular, is not; Mathilde is a much murkier and more complicated figure).
Second, I do not think that women have special access to the distances and alienations of marriage, that they experience a special loneliness that men do not feel. Or, perhaps, to be more precise, I suspect that men must have their own loneliness, the equal counterpart of woman’s, and that a book about alienation would therefore be of interest to them as well.
Third, I do wish people would stop insisting that women are all in for fairytale marriages. It makes us all sound stupid, girlish and naive. Women are capable of being perfectly clear-eyed about marriage, certainly just as much as men are, and people should stop speaking about women’s marital expectations as though they were necessarily childish.
Often, when books make big, cultural splashes, it tells us more about the culture than the book. Certainly, ‘Fates and Furies‘ is a very competent novel of its kind – I do not feel that I wasted my time reading it. Grim, well-executed novels of bourgeois marriage are always enjoyable, in their way. But the frenzy around it says more about us than about ‘Fates and Furies’, I think. Maybe, at a time when we are feeling more and more alienated, novels which are about alienation even in the most intimate spaces will mesmerize and frighten us.
Or maybe I’m missing something. Maybe the desire to be really, totally, perfectly known by the person that loves you is what people expect from marriage; perhaps perfect intimacy is a dream cherished by hearts more romantic than mine (which would be most hearts). And perhaps those romantic hearts are the ones that catapulted ‘Fates and Furies‘ to the tops of the bestseller lists. Perhaps they did not find it, as I did, obvious. Perhaps, to the romantic heart, ‘Fates and Furies’ is, in fact, a terrifying debunking of our last true fairytale.