- - Thursday, April 7, 2016


By Lauren Groff

Riverhead Books, $27.95, 390 pages

Lancelot (nicknamed Lotto) and Mathilde (born Aurelie) married two weeks after they met at the end of their college years. He was “tall, vivid, a light flickered in him that caught the eye and held it.” She was “fair and sharp … quiet and watchful.” Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies” is the story of their passionate marriage, a tale told in two parts: “Fates” is Lotto’s story; “Furies” is Mathilde’s, although they are not based on the same facts.

Lotto was his mother’s, (“Muvva”) golden boy, the heir to the family fortune in bottled water. Father, Gawain, died when Lotto was 13, leaving an indelible loss, an absence Lotto filled with sex, drugs and alcohol — “In the soft, silty mouths of girls, grape gum and hot tongue, he concentrated and was able to dissolve the horror that had settled on him.”

Lotto wanted to be an actor, and moved to New York with his bride in search of fame and fortune, with little success. “Muvva” did not approve his choice of wife and cut off his funds, so Mathilde worked in a gallery to support her husband.

Despite his narcissistic self-absorption, Lotto charmed every one he met. His friends were loyal. Mathilde loved him deeply and “would do anything in the world for this man.” Always smiling, she kept her secrets to herself, while Lotto wanted to be loved by all.

One drunken night, Lotto wrote a play, which Mathilde polished and edited. The play started Lotto on a successful career as a playwright with Mathilde as his muse, protector and editor. Their partnership and marriage seemed uniquely happy. When Lotto died at 46 of a heart attack, Mathilde was distraught.

In the second part of the book, “Furies,” Mathilde reveals herself, beginning with a horrific childhood in France. Rejected by her parents at the age of four for having been responsible for her baby brother’s death, she was sent to stay with her louche Paris grandmother, where she slept in a closet while the grandmother “entertained.”

When she was 11, Mathilde came home from school one day to find her grandmother murdered in her bed. She was sent to an uncle in America. “Her uncle’s in Pennsylvania was only a place to stay, chill and dim, not a home … her loneliness was so huge it took the form of the upstairs hallway, dark and lined with locked doors.” She changed her name to Mathilde. Her uncle suggested she work as a model to earn college tuition, but, as fate would have it, Mathilde’s tuition at Vassar was paid by Ariel, an art dealer with whom she entered into an erotic, masochistic relationship, an exchange of sexual slavery for college tuition.

Mathilde’s apparent gentleness and kindness were superficial; she was ambitious and at times cruel, always knowing what she wanted. Yet, unloved except by Lotto, “the sum of her life, she saw, was much greater than the sum of love.”

Lotto yearned for children, but never knew Mathilde had aborted his baby and then had herself sterilized believing her children would be monsters. After Lotto’s death, she lived in solitude, with occasional sexual encounters. Among them, in another twist of fate, was the son Lotto did not know he had.

“Fates and Furies” is orchestrated in the form of Greek drama, with the narrator’s asides reminiscent of a chorus. Characters have symbolic names: Aurelie (meaning golden) became Mathilde (mighty in battle); Lancelot and Gawain, the medieval knights of the Round Table; Ariel, Shakespeare’s prankster spirit in “The Tempest.” Lotto’s classic “fatal flaw” may lie in his faith in his wife’s purity, a belief which destroyed the end of two decades of marital joy. There is no deus ex machina here, unless it is the tying together of the many strands suggested in “Fates” and revealed in “Furies.”

Ms. Groff’s complex novel is beautifully written. Her book is rich in similes and passages of extraordinary imagery. For example, Lotto imagines what the world would look like under a volcanic explosion: “As if some mad child had come along and scribbled black and gray over the landscape; the streams gone greasy, the trees powder puffs of ash, greensward a slick of gleaming oil … The dead clacketing their bones.” What is missing is the reader’s empathy with the characters. Although well drawn, they do not give rise to an emotional connection.

In the middle of the novel, Ms. Groff includes the “first sketch with notes for music” of an opera Lotto has written together with a young musician. It is an original twist on the myth of Antigone, who buries her dead brother against the wishes of the king. Lotto calls it “The Antigonad.” “Go” is the central character. It is brilliant, so vivid and exciting that the reader can almost hear the music composed for the opera. It is a tour de force and the most moving part of “Fates and Furies.” We care about Go, who “has become the spirit of humanity.”

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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