Ever since I’d read Lauren Groff’s novel Arcadia, which landed on my ten best novels of the year a couple of years ago, I have been looking forward to her next offering. What so impressed me in Arcadia was her gentleness of spirit, her ability to catch the essence of the best side of the hippie commune (in Upstate New York ) of the sixties/seventies, of her overall kindnesses to her very credible characters. The only perceived weaknesses I found in that novel were a rather unexciting, uninspired writing style,and an odd and rather ugly divorce that occurred in the novel, which seemed out of character with the others in the book, and baffled me at the time ( the woman’s depression eventually drives the man away, and a terrible accident that leaves him in a wheelchair for life sends her packing). But the boy who may be considered the main character in that novel is so beautifully rendered, so magnificently delineated–probably autistic at that–that Arcadia partly reads as a contemporary fairy tale , and certainly more of a Utopian book than the current crop of dystopian novels, which are pandemic in most new fiction.
Groff’s current novel, Fates and Furies, has been much praised, overpraised, perhaps, but I was very eager to read it. My disappointment was, thus, that much greater, as Groff’s new novel is little more than a kind of rabid contemporary feminism, ideology masked as fiction, and she’s created two (well, more than two) of the least credible characters in recent fiction: this book is actually offensive, deeply, and I do not recommend it to anyone.
That said, the first thing I noticed was an almost complete change in the way she writes; the overall quality of the writing is vastly improved over her last offering, though her style is both mannered and operatically Baroque. She seems fascinated by the nineteenth century novel, and Fates and Furies occasionally seems to parallel those large and often soap-opera like books; no one novel from the nineteenth century stands out in particular, but her many (often totally unbelievable) coincidences, surprises, and clues reminded me of the serialized novel of yore: there’s a “stay tuned for next week” quality to the book, which, once you catch on to her plot devices, may well give you the giggles, as it did me. The book is extremely pretentious, pompous, excessive, and psychologically so off the mark that one may enjoy it by watching her construction of the novel/plots with an “oh, no, she’s not sinking to THAT” point of view. (And yes, she will sink to that, and I’ll leave out what “that” means for fear of ruining the plot for those who choose to read this book, which is a finalist for The National Book Award, as well.
For me, Groff’s two main problems are her obvious dislike of men, and her creation of a female character, Mathilde, who has practically no credibility as a character. The novel purports to describe/analyze one contemporary marriage, and the first third of the book’s supposedly from the point of view of the man, Lotto, and the second two thirds from the points of view of the wife, Mathilde (nee Aurelie, but that’s another story….stay tuned….). These two meet near the end of their days in a New England college; Otto the most popular of guys, who’s excelled as an actor, and who meets Mathilde at a final party after his Hamlet’s run is over, and she appears at the party afterwards strictly and only to meet Lotto, because she’s heard that he’s rich. Period: sole motive. Nice woman—and, of course, woman marrying for money was supposed to have been expunged from recent fiction, but let’s go along with Groff, at least until nothing in the novel is credible. Groff can’t make up her mind whether to present Lotto, a Floridian, as a spoiled, privileged white kid (all the evidence would have him as a psychologically abused, lonely boy, and there’s little evidence of this money once his father dies at 46. His bizarre, hermit-like mother believes, from Lotto’s birth, in the inevitability of his potential greatness, aided by her sister-in-law and eventually a sister to Lotto (we have zero idea why this much younger sister finds her brother so charismatic: because Groff says so , I suppose: it’s a plot device, of course, but a weak one). Early pregnancies in Lotto’s adolescence will, of course, reappear later in the novel, but Momma is determined to thrust her son away from all devious woman, since she’s Devious Woman I (unfortunately, Mathilde is Devious Woman II: I wish that Groff had allowed these two awful women to have interacted–she’s afraid to, it seems, as she can’t handle two monsters at once, tho Momma and Mathilde will be fighting over Lotto throughout the book. Alas, Momma’s as minimally credible as Mathilde, and I’m sorry that Groff didn’t include a big fight scene–how about the two in a mud wrestling contest?—-as Mathilde is far more manipulative, and by marrying Lotto without knowing him AT ALL, she secures her financial future up front, her highest (and really only) priority.
We’re privy to a pretty awful childhood the originally French Aurelie had; she may or may not have been part of her younger brother’s death at age l , as she may or may not, at age 4, have helped him fall down a bunch of stairs and break his neck (part of her early charm). Her parents leave her right then with her grandmother, and eventually she is shipped to America and lives with a shady uncle: but I note that, lonely though she may be, she is never dumped into an orphanage, she never has to worry about housing or food, and when she changes her name to the very German Mathilde, having learned very early the value of blackmail, by the end of this novel, I would’ve nominated Mathilde to have been a Kommandant in a Nazi concentration camp. Mathilde will always believe the worst in people, we assume because of her isolated and lonely childhood. Once having landed Lotto, Groff would have us believe that she offers total love to him, and to no one else (besides herself), and will do anything to help him (or is it herself?), including blackmail people she knows along the way, finding funding for his plays when he ends up a playwright, even sneaking into his computer in the middle of the night to edit his writing and make it stronger, though there’s no evidence whatsoever that Mathilde has any such skills: behind every man, there’s a successful/pushy/intelligent woman? Groff really seems to want us to believe that; she makes Lotto a near buffoon, though a popular one–boys, after all, will be boys…..Groff would have us believe that nothing Lotto does achieve is on his own merits or through his own skills: Mathilde has taken care of everything, and her ability to lie and sneak around and manipulate virtually everyone she meets (really? for the greater good of Lotto? oh, come on, Lauren Groff).
I hesitate to continue with the plot for fearing of spilling too many beans, but suffice it to say that if you can’t figure out the last third of the book on your own, you’ve not been reading carefully, and the novel gets more and more absurd. I never did find a reason for the bond between the two of them other than sex–which, of course, Mathilde is a master at, having, at l8, elected to be a kind of hooker/kept woman, so that her college fees are paid entirely by her keeper. Uh, huh. I kept waiting for the old skyline from The Edge of Night, an early Procter and Gamble soap opera to appear. But in that last third, Mathilde becomes deeply offensive, her behavior out of control, and since they have a second house in upstate New York in a very small town, it’s amazing how she gets away with everything (the money?). Early in the novel, when her grandmother can’t take her terrible tantrums, understandable though they might have been, and Aurelie/Mathilde is sent to America to live with an uncle, the grandmother refers to her as a “diablesse”, French for a female devil. Granny was right.
If this marriage represents Groff’s idea of contemporary marriage (she states in her afterwards that she remains ambivalent herself about marriage: ambivalent???? my, what a modest word that seems after you read/if you read/if you finish this deeply, deeply offensive novel.) What bothered me the most was the obvious contempt that the author has for men; there aren’t any good or strong or independent men, or when they are, they are deviants or crooks or blackmailers (unlike the charming Mathilde, who uses the exact same skills–but, gee, she learns all that stuff from men, so it’s ok, she was, uh, once a VICTIM and so everything else is justifiable. I can’t remember a less credible character than Mathilde, and Lotto, though more likeable, is also mostly a cartoon character. Groff needs to get away from masking ideology ad fiction, or at least if she chooses to make fiction out of ideology, she’s best learn to do it much better, so that what might appear as occasionally bathos or even tragedy in this book might be remotely credible. If she wants to find men stupid and vain and always little boys, fine for her, but please don’t foist this tiresome ideology off on the rest of us and pretend that you, the author, has the remotest understanding of either women or men: unfortunately, since Groff understands neither gender, but only ideology, her novel Fates and Furies is a complete disaster, a terrible and frightening novel as it’s so full of hate. Her other alternative is to write the kind of operas where these behaviors are , perhaps, more allowable, and let the rest of us not buy the tickets.