Generations of armchair philosophers, jilted ex-spouses and garden-variety cynics have stated, over and over again, that they do not believe in love. It’s been said enough times to qualify as banal and trite, a phrase recycled as often as “it’s not you, it’s me.”
But when they say that they don’t believe in love, what most people mean is that they don’t believe in love stories. Love stories are predictable and more or less unchallenging, which, as anybody who has ever been in love will tell you, is the exact opposite of how the thing actually works. Love stories, as Kurt Vonnegut once explained, follow a familiar arc – you start in down in the dumps, you meet somebody, you experience the whirlwind highs of romance, it all comes crashing down (throwing you further into the depths of despair than you’d ever been before) and then, because this is a love story, your triumph over adversity, win back your paramour and live happily ever after.
What Lauren Groff (The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia) has achieved in Fates and Furies, then, is an incredible love story that also manages not to be. It’s a novel about love, and about marriage, and about all the sacrifice, unspoken compromise and obfuscation that is inherent in any partnership. It is a novel full of sharp edges and blind corners. It is a novel that is sure to be celebrated for years to come.
We first meet Lotto and Mathilde on a cold, out-of season beach, the site of their clandestine honeymoon. They’ve eloped, at twenty-two, after knowing each other for only a few short weeks. He is an actor known for his electrifying charm, his appetite for seduction and his claim to a massive fortune. She is elegant and quiet, an orphan who has worked as a model to pay her way through school. Tall and charismatic, they stand out in any crowd. Together, they are certain to conquer the world.
And they do, of course. Or, at least, they will, after some hard years of work and poverty and bare-knuckle, paycheck-to-paycheck living. His overbearing mother will disapprove of their marriage. Relatives will sneak them money. While Lotto finds nothing but rejection on the New York theater scene, Mathilde will take unfulfilling day jobs to make ends meet. Throughout it all, however, they will maintain their place as the couple their friends are drawn to, throwing parties in their basement apartment and provoking respect and ire in equal measure. They may not be universally liked, but they are universally admired.
This continues, albeit on a grander scale, with Lotto’s unexpected success as a playwright. Suddenly, Lotto and Mathilde are a power couple, the toast of Manhattan. And, although both of them make the aforementioned sacrifices, and plenty of mistakes, they always seem to weather the storm. Sacrifices and mistakes may test Lotto and Mathilde, but will never end them. What they have is something far too strong for that.
And then, everything changes.
Suddenly, we begin to see the holes in the story we’ve been told so far. Suddenly, we begin to realize how many stories have not been told.
Is Mathilde really who she says she is? Is Lotto actually what he believes himself to be? What was their relationship founded on, in the first place? What is the truth and, more importantly, does it matter?
Love is great, sure. But love is complicated, too.
The first half of Fates and Furies is told from Lotto’s perspective, the second from Mathilde’s, and the result is a tale of parallel lives that is revealing, unsettling and, in its careful dissection of what it means to share yourself with someone else, utterly fascinating. Because what, really, do we share? What do we keep to ourselves, and why? Are the reasons we repeat to ourselves, over and over again, really the source of our motivation? Groff relentlessly asks these questions throughout Fates and Furies. She never flinches at the answers.
This is a beautiful novel, a compelling novel, and at times a very funny one. It is astounding in its complexity, and yet so simple once unraveled. It is heartbreaking and a little harsh, full of promises almost kept and secrets almost revealed. In short, it is the story of love.
Maybe, in the end, all of our stories are love stories. While Fates and Furies does not follow the conventions of the standard love story, it is, at its core, a novel about love and all of love’s strange power. No matter how you feel about love, or love stories, it is a stunning piece of work.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Riverhead | 9781594634475 | September 15, 2015)