There’s a lot I don’t like about Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. It’s slow. It’s often overly flowery. It winks at itself. Its characters have unlikely and sometimes symbolic names. It occasionally feels like it’s trying SO HARD. Yet I finished it. And I wasn’t sorry I did.
Fates and Furies is a story about marriage; rather, it’s a story about two people who are married to each other. The first half of the book (“Fates”) concerns Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite, whose life and personality glimmers with some sort of magic, from his conception by a beast-like man named Gawain and a woman who pretended to be a mermaid for a living to his birth during a storm to his early success with women and later fame as a playwright. He’s charming and charismatic. The language in his half of the book is at times almost insufferable in its floweriness, but it works because if anyone’s world is flowery, it’s this guy’s. He’s a first-class narcissist and something of a romantic.
The second half of the book (“Furies”) concerns his wife Mathilde Yoder and the dark past she never reveals to her husband. I don’t want to tell you much about her half because it will spoil the book for you (which, despite all my negativity, I would still recommend), but let’s just say that this is where the book gets good: all the holes in the first half, the parts that felt somehow insincere, the giant potholes in Lotto’s portrayal of their relationship: all get filled. Plus the language becomes slightly more plainspoken, which is a relief. It also speaks to the fact that Ms. Groff knew what she was doing. Maybe a little too much so.
The whole thing feels very mapped out, from its title and form to its reference to the Greeks and theatrical traditions. I can appreciate that, but I think I like my fiction to feel a little more organic and plausible. I remember, on my first day in my first fiction class in my MFA program, the professor said he didn’t like stories that felt like they’d come from an “idea.” I argued because I didn’t know what he meant. Now I know that he was talking about a sort of stiffness, the feeling that it has been outlined and not allowed to grow outside its original parameters. I don’t know Lauren Groff or her process or how this novel was conceived, but that’s what I see happening in this book. And that’s not necessarily wrong. After all, as I said, it all fits together in the end. As a whole, it makes sense. You just have to trust that it will, and I don’t think I did that.
Fates and Furies is the kind of book I read for mental exercise. Also, I’m always curious when someone I regard as a literary author ends up on the bestseller’s list–I gravitate toward literary fiction. This one is not my style, but I can appreciate its appeal and there were times when I did enjoy the prose’s fancy footwork and self-awareness, the moments when it screamed, “Hey! I’m an intellectual and thoughtful piece of art!” at the top of its lungs–in the right mood, that appeals to me. But I wasn’t always in the right mood–I don’t get to be in that artsy/intellectual mood very often anymore. I can see myself entering one of my MFA seminars, if I’d been assigned Fates and Furies, ready to gush about how much I liked it. I can also see myself spending three hours tearing it to pieces. Either way, there would likely have been a moment or two when one of my classmates would voice their opposition to my opinion so forcefully that I’d feel small and stupid and doubtful. Which is maybe why I keep couching my negative opinions with positive ones: I’m steeling myself against whatever comments you might have, opposing me. That, and this crazy, big, swirling novel is too complicated to inspire just one thought or feeling in its reader. A little bit like marriage, which is its subject. So maybe it works.