In Greek mythology, the Fates decide a person’s destiny. They assign us to good or evil and decide how long we live. The Furies are monsters, punishing those of us in the Underworld. Lauren Groff’s new novel, Fates and Furies, brings these mythological creatures to life in the form of a couple named Lotto and Mathilde. The first half of the book, entitled “Fates,” focuses on Lotto, while “Furies” tells Mathilde’s story. As the plot unfolds, Groff reveals a sea of discontent and deceit beneath a seemingly ideal marriage.
Groff is no stranger to complicated, sprawling stories. Arcadia (2011) and The Monsters of Templeton (2008) are full of multiple storylines, changing POVs, and intricate plot twists. Fates and Furies does not disappoint in this respect. It opens when Lotto and Mathilde are married, right out of college, on the beach in the middle of a romantic tryst. It follows the couple through college and marriage, and on to New York City. Lotto, who was supposed to be a successful actor, is floundering. Eventually he turns to playwriting, where he becomes an astounding success. But over the years, their marriage turns out to be a coldly calculated move. No one is who you initially think they are.
Underneath all the prep school and private college antics—croquet games, trips to Maine, endless parties—there is an undercurrent of desperation and unhappiness that infects the soul. Groff is almost too good of a storyteller: the selfishness of her characters peels off the page in a way that is uncomfortably real.
The prose is sharp and devastating:
They handed over spider plants in terra-cotta, six-packs, books, bottles of wine. Yuppies in embryo, miming their parents’ manners. In twenty years, they’d have country houses and children with pretentious literary names and tennis lessons and ugly cars and liaisons with hot young interns. Hurricanes of entitlement, all swirl and noise and destruction, nothing at their centers.
Groff constructs a vivid and visual world for the reader, nailing details from Central Florida (the “humid stink”) and Northeastern prep schools (Liberty of London prints, popped collars), along with the parenthetical asides to the reader that read like stage directions, of a sort (“[From the first, a wicked sense of timing.]”). Given that Lotto is a playwright, the story feels like a play within a play, like the action is being directed, perhaps by the Fates and Furies.
The story is unsettling, although for much of the book, the reader can’t figure out why, exactly. And Groff’s technical skill is indisputable. All of the unanswered questions, the witty or thoughtful asides from the first part of the novel, are explained or illustrated in the second—and then some. Groff manages to present an intricate, complex story, leaving nothing to chance and nothing unanswered. My only complaint is that the characters are so convincingly deplorable.
– Jaime Rochelle Herndon graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia and is a writer and editor living in NYC. She is a contributor at Book Riot and a writing instructor at Apiary Lit, and her writing can be seen on Healthline and New York Family Magazine, among others. Her book Taking Back Birth is forthcoming in 2016 from Microcosm Publishing.