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When Family Is the Thing You Can't Escape

In Lauren Groff’s literary universe, people are never really just themselves. They’re bits and pieces handed down over generations, a smile from a long-lost mother, bad skin made inevitable by genetic misfortune, a tortured identity inherited from a womanizing patriarch. It’s a seemingly fatalistic view, à la Hamlet or East of Eden, but in Groff’s work it is simultaneously a burden and a source of comfort. In her 2008 debut novel Monsters of Templeton, the town of Templeton and its rich history inform the identity of the protagonist, the last descendent of its founder, and her search for her biological father drives the plot. Arcadia, which came four years later, follows the first child born in a 1970s commune as he seeks his place within a larger world whose values and norms run against those instilled in him by his childhood. Family is not just where you come from, but what you can’t escape.

Though in Groff’s latest novel, Fates and Furies, her focus is narrower—a single marriage rather than interconnecting families—the shadow of family looms large over it. Tall, talented, and glamorous at 22, the protagonists Lotto and Mathilde marry within two weeks of meeting—the world at their feet, the envy of their friends. The heir to a bottled-water fortune, Lotto is a charismatic theater star, and eventual playwright, who shines with a light that both attracts the other characters and obscures them. Mathilde lurks in the background throughout the first part of the novel, defined mostly through Lotto’s view of her: “the purest person he’d ever met, he, who had been primed for purity,” a saint of a wife who pays all the bills, does all the chores, and never complains. 

Lotto and Mathilde find family in each other after being thrown out by their own families, one exiled to boarding school and the other sent to live with distant relatives after a serious transgression. But their relationship breaks down due to flaws instilled in them from their upbringings—a pathological need for control for one, an inability to accept anything less than perfection for the other. Like Arcadia, Fates and Furies narrates the protagonists’ lives from cradle to grave, a form Groff once called her “natural canvas.” Their story unfolds from two different perspectives, the first half of the novel told by Lotto and the second by Mathilde. In both sections, we see Mathilde and Lotto as children, molded and manipulated by a swirl of parents, grandmothers, aunts, and others. Fates and Furies may be the story of a marriage, but it’s also a generational saga.

As Lotto’s mother says to Mathilde, “You only really know about a person when you know about their kin.” Even while positioning them as de facto orphans, Groff relies on their families to give Lotto and Mathilde character and color. In order to understand one character, we must see those who surround them, nurture them, abuse them. We learn about Mathilde’s personality from her painful childhood, the cruelty she suffered and the manipulation she learned out of necessity. Groff’s genius is to paint an entire family portrait in order to bring a single individual to light, and from our privileged position, we come to know Lotto and Mathilde better than they ever know each other. When Mathilde meets her uncle for the first time, we see a key aspect of her personality fall into place. “She felt her breath twist. From the first, she understood he was very dangerous, despite his mild aspect. She would have to be very careful. She would have to keep to herself.”

There’s always been an element of the fantastical in Groff’s novels, from spontaneously combusting buildings to a mysterious lake creature akin to the Loch Ness Monster. Though less outlandish, those dramatic elements appear here in Mathilde’s story—sudden deaths, shady sexual agreements, lonely mansions of locked doors and stolen Dutch masterpieces. Groff’s writing blossoms, lush and layered, in these descriptions of secrets and unspoken agreements. While living in her uncle’s mansion, where all doors but her own are locked, Mathilde stumbles upon an open one by chance to find a treasury of contraband art.

She picked up a painted board. … Never in her life had she seen a more perfect thing. At the bottom, in the foreground, there was a curvy white horse with a man in blue robes riding it, the fabric so lush she touched it to make sure it wasn’t real. Behind him were other men, other horses, a jagged rock face. Up against the blue sky was a soft, pale city so perfect it seemed made out of bones. She memorized it. At last she put it back down and took off her sweater to wipe up the snowmelt that had dripped onto the floor from her hair and clothes. She closed the door behind her and felt a keen loss when she heard the lock fall into place. 

Mathilde’s thrill looking at the stolen canvas is akin to our thrill at reading her half of the book, the feeling of being let in on a dark, beautiful secret. Groff’s books have always walked the line between literary fiction and less highbrow works, not unlike the novels of H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, and, more recently, Patricia Highsmith. Groff’s plot twists often border on the melodramatic, and the intrigue and magic, not to mention the copious amounts of sex, seem more at home in young-adult fiction. There’s a reason why Stephen King was one of her earliest champions, comparing Monsters favorably to Harry Potter. But the sheer beauty of Groff’s imaginative, lyrical writing, as well as her poignant observations about human relationships, give her page-turners the gravitas to demand serious consideration.

Despite its promising beginning, the novel tells us two almost separate stories about Lotto and Mathilde, instead of dissecting the different ways two people in one relationship process their life together. Groff’s subject is often obscured by the narrative method she has chosen, the dual perspective storytelling more seen in young-adult novels such as Eleanor & Park and The Time Traveler’s Wife. From the very first pages of the novel, their perspectives differ. After their first post-wedding sex, Lotto claims Mathilde as his own: 

“My wife,” he said. “Mine.” Perhaps instead of wearing her, he could swallow her whole. …

“Stop,” she said. She’d lost her smile, so shy and constant that he was startled to see her up close without it. “Nobody belongs to anybody. We’ve done something bigger. It’s new.”

What that “bigger” thing is, however, remains unclear over the course of the novel. Groff isn’t much interested in dissecting the obvious questions raised by a split narrative: the subjectivity of memory, the subtle, often gendered, differences in perception. The differences between Lotto and Mathilde’s stories are much more dramatic, plot points rather than psychological nuances. What comes across instead are two vibrant individuals and the shifting constellations of family and friends that shape them, a feat all the more remarkable given that the prose doesn’t noticeably change between sections. Rather than let Lotto and Mathilde speak for themselves, Groff employs the third-person so that they are distinguished by their thoughts rather than their voices. 

Groff is hardly the first to try this mode of storytelling. Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (2007) weaves between two newlyweds on their disastrous wedding night to show how quickly misunderstanding can unravel a relationship. One of the best examples of this narrative form, On Chesil Beach is a marvel of dramatic pacing, a psychological study where the sole enterprise is to understand how two people misread the same situation. Of course, this type of storytelling is also employed in less literary fare like Gone Girl, in which the changing viewpoints build to a climactic reveal. In Fates and Furies, Lotto and Mathilde’s two versions of their life neither deconstruct a marriage nor build to a dramatic plot twist. It’s unclear what we’re supposed to learn, other than perhaps that Mathilde was never the woman Lotto thought her to be. 

Nonetheless Groff’s rich, energetic prose keeps Fates and Furies afloat, and it’s a testament to her abilities as a portraitist that Lotto, and especially Mathilde, are fascinating individuals, even if the novel doesn’t quite come together as a whole. Groff explicitly treats the marriage as a third character—“Between his skin and hers, there was the smallest of spaces, barely enough for air, for this slick of sweet now chilling. Even still, a third person, their marriage, had slid in.” But in a novel so focused on the two protagonists, there isn’t room for the third character. The marriage arc is subsumed in their individual stories, shaped by their families, and the parts outshine the whole. Lotto and Mathilde are meant to illuminate each other, but they are brighter on their own.