If you’ve been reading Bacon this week, you might have made your list of What You Want. Today, behind door #2, is your next question: What Do You Want In Your Marriage? The rules are the same this time around: Nobody else’s needs count for purposes of this exercise. What Do You Want In Your Marriage. Put pencil to paper.
After you’ve answered, consider this: Desires are genies in bottles. Negotiate wisely. They seek their freedom fiercely and love to leave chaos in their wake.
Lauren Groff’s novel Fates and Furies is one of the fiercest and truest novels about marriage that I’ve encountered, set mostly in the recent past in New York City yet as exotic as any genie dream. Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage is marked by grand emotion and scale: extremes of love, wealth, poverty, goodness, manipulation, revenge, and sex.
The first half of the book, “Fates,” tells the story of Lotto’s childhood. He was born in Florida, heir to a water bottling fortune, and after terrible years at boarding school and good years in college he falls madly in love with the beautiful and mysterious Mathilde. “For now, he’s the one we can’t look away from. He is the shining one,” we are told, and it’s true. Mathilde is a cipher. The second half, “Furies,” starts again at the beginning with Mathilde’s back story and proceeds to tell her version of their marriage (“Mathilde was not unfamiliar with grief. That old wolf had come sniffing around her house before.”) The paths that lead Mathilde and Lotto to a college party at Vassar and their marriage within 2 weeks are as extreme and unusual as any I’ve seen in recent literature, almost mythic in their various monstrosities of love and deprivation. One has a sense that there are grand archetypes in the shadows behind the characters.
In the context of this unusual set of circumstances, Fates and Furies seriously considers two questions: what shapes or determines a person’s character, and what is the nature of marriage.
Groff comes down squarely in the camp that childhood experiences mark us indelibly for life and set us on paths we barely choose. In her clearest, most beautiful statement of this opinion:
It occurred to her [Mathilde] then that life was conical in shape, the past broadening beyond the sharp point of the lived moment. The more life you had, the more the base expanded, so that the wounds and treasons that were nearly imperceptible when they happened stretched like tiny dots on a balloon slowly blown up. A speck on the slender child grows into a gross deformity in the adult, inescapable, ragged at the edges.
This raises of course the question of free will and would be excellent material for book club conversation.
The topic that is perhaps less suited for conversation – and more suited for contemplation – is Groff’s examination of the strangely powerful union that marriage can be. Her story repeatedly asks how truly you can ever know another person, even the person you are most intimate with, and holds up the mystery of marriage to be examined from many different angles. She considers epic sex; fear of loss or betrayal; the diminishing of a wife’s identity in the shadow of a husband; the ways a couple’s affection can be nearly destroyed and then restored. Perhaps my favorite passage is a scene in which Lotto and Mathilde are walking home from a bar, half-drunk, happy:
“They’ll still be here when we’re gone,” he said… “The ants and the jellyfish and the cockroaches. They will be the kings of the earth.” He was amused by her; he, who was so often drunk. His poor liver. She pictured it inside him, a singed rat, pink and scarred.
“They deserve this place more than we do,” she said. “We’ve been reckless with our gifts.”
He smiled and looked up. There were no stars; there was too much smog for them. “Did you know,” he said, “they found out just a little while ago that there are billions of worlds that can support life in our galaxy alone.” He did his best Carl Sagan: “Billions and billions!”
She felt a sting behind her eyes, but couldn’t say why this thought touched her.
He saw clear through and understood. [He knew her; the things he didn’t know about her would sink an ocean liner; he knew her.] “We’re lonely down here,” he said. “It’s true. But we’re not alone.”
Lotto says this knowing that the most essential element of Mathilde’s personality – the deepest, truest aspect of her self – is her loneliness.
Passages like this make Fates and Furies a terrifyingly beautiful and provocative read. “He knew her; the things he didn’t know about her would sink an ocean liner; he knew her.”
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Fates and Furies was recently named a finalist for the National Book Award.
Lauren Groff recently stopped in at the Southern Festival of Books; please click here for a few questions she answered before arriving.