YOU COULD STRING TOGETHER the parties Lotto and Mathilde had been to like a necklace, and you would have their marriage in miniature.
This stray consideration by one of her characters provides a structural metaphor for the first half of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. The novel tells the story of the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde, first from his perspective, then from hers, though Groff maintains an omniscient psychic distance that maintains the right to go into other POVs, so that the halves (his Fates, hers Furies) the book is divided into might be said to focus on or revolve around the two perspectives, respectively, rather than being exclusively from them.
“Fates” opens with a scene of the couple just after their wedding, which we learn has occurred after their knowing each other only two weeks. We get Lotto’s half first because “he’s the one we can’t look away from. He is the shining one.” Lotto was raised spoiled, his father having earned a fortune by upselling a family windfall, but after his father dies of an aneurysm when Lotto is a teenager, he starts hanging out with a delinquent crowd. After he loses his virginity to a girl named Gwennie (whose brother Chollie is a close friend of his), his overprotective mother sends him to a boarding school in the northeast, where he’s an outcast who almost kills himself but is prevented from doing so by discovering the body of another boy who’s beat him to it. Never returning home after he’s exiled, Lotto attends Vassar, where he’s a standout actor and womanizer who occasionally dabbles in bisexuality. At the cast party after his last college performance (as Hamlet), he meets Mathilde, a girl no one seems to know much about, and falls in love instantly. His mother disinherits him for not marrying someone more suitable, and they take up residence in a Greenwich Village basement apartment, where Lotto struggles to find work as an actor and Mathilde struggles to support them working at a gallery (and secretly asking Lotto’s aunt for money to help with rent). After several years as a failing and increasingly depressed actor, Lotto writes a play one night about his youth that winds up launching his career as a successful playwright. After several plays, an injury puts him indoors for a summer, and Mathilde takes him to an opera whose writer he pursues to work on a joint project with at an artist’s colony. Lotto becomes infatuated with this young writer, Leo, who flees the colony when Lotto is dissatisfied with the music he’s come up with for their opera adapting Antigone. Lotto and Mathilde never have children, and Lotto eventually reveals himself to be an unequivocally raging and utterly unaware misogynist at a high-profile discussion panel. One night when they’re at an opening (for an old friend of theirs Lotto briefly reconnected with at the artist colony who’d since died) at the old gallery where Mathilde used to work, Mathilde’s old boss Ariel reveals to Lotto that he and Mathilde used to be lovers–shocking Lotto, who’d always believed Mathilde was a virgin when they’d married. Lotto dies of an aneurysm shortly thereafter.
Lotto’s half is ten chapters; one covers the period of his twenties via scenes of all the parties in their basement apartment over the years; another chapter shows his thirties by providing either snippets from his plays or scenes surrounding their composition–usually culminating in Mathilde’s having sex with him. The scene where Lotto finds out about Mathilde’s lie is a “real” scene, but is told in the form of a play (in which we see Chollie pay a waiter to spill wine on Mathilde so she leaves Lotto’s side to clean up). We also get the full description of the failed opera Lotto wrote with Leo. The structure of his half breaks down to roughly the first half being what’s happened to him, and the second half his turning what’s happened to him into his art.
“Furies” follows Mathilde after Lotto’s death, alternating this present thread with Mathilde’s own backstory, which it turns out Lotto never knew anything about. For starters, she is actually French, and her real name is Aurelie. When she’s four, she lets her toddler brother out of his room and watches him fall down the stairs, breaking his neck. She’s sent to live with her grandmother, a prostitute in Paris who makes her sleep in the closet, then when the grandmother dies when she’s eleven, to live with her uncle in America. Despite wealth from a questionable profession, the uncle is unwilling to pay for her college tuition, and Mathilde ends up making a deal with a man who follows her when she takes a train to NYC; the man, Ariel, agrees to pay for her college tuition in exchange for her spending every weekend with him doing whatever he wants. Part of the deal is that she isn’t allowed to sleep with anyone else, so she never makes friends with anyone in college. Then she overhears some girls talking about how Lotto is actually rich, and goes to see him in his play and follows him to his cast party. She considers leaving him alone and not subjecting him to her evil but doesn’t, instead resolving that he will never know about her evil side. After they marry, Antoinette offers Mathilde a significant sum to leave Lotto, but Mathilde, hurt that she’s been rejected by the new family she thought she was going to get, refuses the deal and tells Antoinette that she’ll never see her son again. It also turns out that she has secretly been sterilized after one abortion, that she has been significantly editing Lotto’s plays at night while he’s asleep, and that she has blackmailed her crooked uncle into financing the production of Lotto’s very first play, which they couldn’t get produced on their own and which became the launching pad to the rest of his success.
Mathilde deals with her extreme grief after Lotto’s death by finally letting her natural anger hang out and by sleeping with a lot of random men, including a young acolyte of Lotto’s who visits the house. She also buys the house in France that had been in her family for four hundred years and has it leveled. It turns out Lotto’s old friend Chollie followed Mathilde to Ariel’s one day and had been planning on telling Lotto his girlfriend was a prostitute but didn’t get a chance before they married, and has since been biding his time, jealous that she’s taken his best friend away from him. He lets Mathilde know that he let Lotto know about it before Lotto died. Mathilde retaliates by hiring a private investigator who finds some dirt on Chollie, but after Lotto’s sister and aunt reveal that Chollie’s sister Gwennie had a baby by Lotto when they were teenagers that Gwennie put up for adoption (shortly before killing herself)–the baby was the young man, Land, who came to the house that Mathilde slept with (who it turns out also stole the first draft of Lotto’s first play that night)–Mathilde decides to unite Chollie with his nephew. Left to her own devices, she tries her own hand at writing, but her work goes largely unnoticed.
Mathilde’s half is twenty-five chapters, meaning they’re shorter than Lotto’s. They generally follow the braided thread structure of backstory/present. As with Lotto’s, there is also an embedded passage in the novel that describes Mathilde’s narrative structure, in a passage and structure both notably more complex than Lotto’s:
IT WOULD COME to her decades later, when she was old, in a porcelain bathtub held aloft on lion claws and her own body mercifully submerged, that her life could be drawn in the shape of an X. Her feet duck-splayed and reflected in the water.
From a terrifying expanse in childhood, life had focused to a single red-hot point in middle age. From there it had exploded outward again.
She slid her heels apart so they were no longer touching. The reflection moved with them.
Now her life showed itself to have been in a different shape, equal and opposite to the first. [Complex, our Mathilde; she can bear contradictions.]
Now the shape of her life appeared to be: greater than, white space, less than.
Despite the section with his talk that revealed the book to be unequivocally aware of his misogyny, Lotto’s half definitely started to get grating by the end, with its unbroken string of his success and great sex that his periodic depression did little to mitigate. (The dialog often feels a bit overblown as well, but Lotto’s elevated diction makes sense since he’s constantly trying to replicate a Shakespearean actor, and, in this context, the book often feels like a play.) Groff reveals her self-awareness by summing up the trope she’s resorting to in rendering the entirety of a scene thus:
“You’re a genius,” she said, putting the manuscript down.
“So do me,” he said.
“Gladly,” she said.
Mathilde’s half comes in to further underscore this grating-ness as an entirely intentional part of the design: despite the shifting psychic distance that allows Groff to roam where she pleases, Lotto’s half reveals what his own life looks like to him. Looking back, all that would stand out to him, predominantly, is the success, sex, and parties, and the brief intervals those elements were threatened. Mathilde’s half reveals a Portrait-of-a-Lady-like twist, of how much went on behind the scenes of Lotto’s life that he was unaware of. We’re left to interpret for ourselves whether the reveal of the design behind the curtain directly led to Lotto’s death or not.
In Chapter 18 of “Fates,” we learn that the reason Lotto became a famous playwright was not only because Mathilde edited and revised his work for him without his knowing it, but that even though the work was good, they couldn’t get anyone to put it on. That is, until Mathilde used a tidbit she’d kept up her sleeve for such an apparent emergency/rainy day: as a girl she saw that her uncle was in possession of a painting that she later learned in college was stolen and thought to have been destroyed. So she writes to her uncle, and then Lotto gets a call that some company is putting on his play because a private financier is funding it. This made me personally feel better about the trajectory we got for Lotto in the first part that, as noted, seemed a little ridiculous–Lotto supposedly pays his dues by struggling as an actor, but then seemingly almost immediately finds success as a genius playwright. In Mathilde’s half, we see it was not the brilliance of the work alone that got him to where he was, but underhanded manipulation, and also more than one person working on it.
The other thing that’s great about this particular twist/reveal is that Mathilde would not have known what the painting was (and therefore be able to presumably threaten her uncle with her knowledge of what he had) if she had not been in that particular class at Vassar. Her going to Vassar, the way she enabled herself to go via her deal with Ariel, is itself what’s led to the undoing of the perfect life it’s gotten her: Vassar got her Lotto, but Lotto’s aneurysm seems to potentially be a product of his new knowledge of her deal with Ariel (and if he hadn’t died of the aneurysm, would she have still lost him, would he have left her….) Here we see that Vassar also got her the ticket to their postcard success story in the piece of knowledge about the painting she’d seen in her childhood.
Though some of the plot twists sound melodramatic when analyzed objectively, in conjunction with the invocations of mythology throughout, these twists become acceptably representative of the further pain we’re all capable of causing ourselves by refusing to let go of past pain. The book works as a possible metaphor for marriage in general, if we’re to read marriage as an institution in which the husband only comprehends a fraction of what his wife has done for him, while knowing her better than anyone else, while knowing her hardly at all. Then there’s all the things his mother did for him unbeknownst as well…ultimately raising the question of how coddled and oblivious are white men in our society, and how do domestic institutions reinforce this coddling and obliviousness?
Aside from the plot structure, the other thing that makes this book about a worn subject–the strains of an upper-middle class marriage (enlivened possibly by the possibility that that upper-middle class position has been jeopardized by the marriage itself)–stand out is its innovative use of language. Not only is Groff’s vocabulary possibly the most formidable in recent memory, she verbs verbs and nouns nouns that shouldn’t be nouned or verbed, and is also fond of fragments:
…a tide pool full of spiny creatures  sent up curls of sand in vanishing.
Calm. Mild. End of autumn. Chill in the air like a premonition.
Outside, a thickness of night. Streetlights were lollipops of bright snow.
Around him, a lushness of poinsettias.
Outside, the swift passing of a cat body on the sidewalk.
Some deep-buried acorn of emotion, something about his father.
SUNSET. House on the dunes like a sea-tossed conch. Pelicans thumbtacked in the wind. Gopher tortoise under the palmetto.
For a breath, she studied the sidewalk waltz of chickadee and sun through windblown leaves.
And is adept at sensuous strokes:
The grandmother was like her son, square, strong-featured, taller than most men. Her mouth was carved down into a sharp n shape. She had a granite lap and a way of puncturing the jokes of others by sighing loudly at the punch line.
And objective correlative (and sentence structure), in this case to capture grief:
Naked Mathilde neglected to answer the doorbell, woke on the wrong side of the bed seeking heat that wasn’t there, let the food rot on the porch, let the flowers rot on the porch, watched the dog piddle in the middle of the kitchen, made scrambled eggs for the animal when she ran out of kibble, gave her the last of the vegetable chili that Lotto had made, and watched the dog lick her own bum, sore from the spices, until it was red.
Groff also uses the bracketed-off commentary of an omniscient Greek-chorus like narrator to interesting effect–embedding meaning and raising tension.
[This day would bend back and shine itself into everything.]
This is what we’re told about a day critical to Lotto’s losing his virginity to Gwennie. On first read this reads as a comment that Lotto will always remember this day as a golden memory, but on second read, knowing fully everything, as the chorus does, the “everything” this day shines itself into becomes larger than just Lotto’s, since this day will be what produces the son that Mathilde won’t find out about until after Lotto’s death, the son that provides the opportunity she’ll finally take for emotional redemption.