I’m going to spoil it for you right off the bat, because this goofy blog is not a book review site but a discussion of culture and politics, so if you haven’t read “Fates and Furies” and have been meaning to, x this screen out right now and go pick up a copy at the library. Brooklyn’s branches alone have 56 copies: see, it’s worth it, everyone else in this city of young rising-bourgeois artist couples who foolishly get married and then grow to love/hate each other while struggling for fortune and success is reading it.
Most everything about Fates and Furies reads as implausible, which could either be the sign of a shitty book or one that does a phenomenal job of suspending its readers’ disbelief with its literary élan. Of course I wouldn’t be writing this if, for Groff’s novel, it wasn’t the latter. Protagonist husband Lotto Satterwhite (such a good name — makes you cringe just reading it, calls to mind runny eggs) abruptly marries a stranger that he falls for at a college party. He survives in New York City as a mediocre stage actor for 10 years before he suddenly strikes it big as a playwright, enjoys fifteen or so more years’ grand acclaim before he suddenly and thankfully dies of an aneurysm. Over the course of those 25 years he goes from swept away by his wife to uninterested in her to a combination of jealous repulsion and sad, vague neediness. When he dies around page 200 the reader, if they are anything like me, has been sick of Lotto the entire time and feels nothing for his death.
His widow, Mathilde, takes over the narration. We discover she married Lotto out of fear of being alone, because she comes from a place of deep, dark abandonment. She sort of adores him but, ultrapractical as she is, she’s invested in the marriage mostly because she’s interested in her own prosperity; alas, in her patriarchal world that is both imagined and real, he is the key to that prosperity. Or perhaps he’s not, but she knows she can’t live without him, so she is committed to keeping them both afloat? Either way, her industrious approach to the marriage comes across in the book as sensible and smart, not necessarily cold and definitely not silly. Mathilde loves Lotto, and even when we begin to see that his idyllic experience of the relationship is woefully delusional compared to the gnarls this partnership is really built of, we read Mathilde as accepting and generous, though she spends much of her time enabling his delusions by omitting every important detail about her life or straight up lying to him about what she does, all the damn time. Turns out, Mathilde’s been revising his plays behind his back so that they’ll actually be good. He has no idea she’s his agent, PR specialist and manager. He is too consumed with being Lotto to ever bother learning about who she is, why she feels the way she does, where and whom she comes from, etc. Their relationship is a comedy because they communicate the way a heavy-duty vacuum communicates with the potted cactus it roars past, but more a tragedy because both characters’ pasts are darkly tragic. When I read Mathilde’s connivances, and Lotto’s limitless ignorance, I only feel sad for them both, rather than any kind of amusement or anger, say, at his buffoonish narcissism or his backward gender ideals, or her lack of interest in working toward a healthy relationship (alas, she’s the only one with the awareness needed to potential do so).
One interesting thing about the story is that, when Lotto dies and we begin to understand the marriage (he has to die for that to happen, lol), Mathilde’s love for him begins to really come out. In fact we begin to wonder if, against all odds, she was always deeply fond of him even though she knew he was a dolt who never bothered to know her. To me this is another way Groff painfully reveals Mathilde’s problems, but it also perhaps says something important about (1) the kind of patience women often have for inept men, and (2) how women or men who find themselves stuck in the cruel and unusual institution we call marriage not only salvage the benefits to make it bearable but nurture a weird and lasting kind of love from the circumstances, anyway. We need to love, so we find a way, and we make it count, for better or worse. And here is where I think Groff’s intentions really come out: she gives man and woman equal pages of narration, but all the fascinating complexity of the fucked-up experience of marrying someone comes in the latter half of the book, when we get it through Mathilde’s eyes. “Fates and Furies” is about Mathilde, not Lotto. It’s about her peculiar, troubling but real kind of love; moreover, his 200 pages are about her invisibility, or her erasure, rather than about his truth. Lotto dies and you feel like you hardly knew him, let alone their marriage. I think Groff wanted it that way.
In the end I’m not sure what to make of “Fates and Furies,” though I know it was a heady, challenging book that moved from unsatisfying and cloying to totally addictive exactly when Mathilde took over the story. In the Acknowledgements section, Groff makes a remark contrasting the contortions of Lotto’s and Mathilde’s partnership with her own marriage, which she writes that she feels lucky to be in. Does this mean the book is not a polemic against the institution? I’m not so sure. You wonder if the Satterwhite marriage is based on real gender dynamics Groff has seen in couples she knows–the man’s desperate preoccupation with his work, the woman’s aptitude for hauling the full load thanklessly and covertly, the man’s propensity for delusion, the woman’s indifference to whether or not their contract is emblazoned in lies. Both parties’ fear of abandonment, his fear of castigation, criticism, of being wrong, their collective terror at the thought of vulnerability. I smiled when I read the testament to rich love in the Acknowledgements, not only because Groff has the talent to write a story she is not personally living, but because she saw fit to summon that story anyway. I like how that story makes me think, feel, reflect.