I’m not giving this book five stars, but it’s still going to go on my Best of 2015 list. That might be a first for me. I nearly abandoned Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. I made it to page 70 and then my stepfather died, and life became very busy. It sat on my bedside dresser untouched for weeks. But after things started to calm down a bit, and my focus returned, I began it again, realizing it was due back to the library and had holds. I’m so glad I kept at it. It’s a slow burn, a book that rewards the reader’s persistence.
Why four stars, not five? Because I was so enthralled with the blazing second half of the book (“Furies”) that it detracts from the (good) first half (“Fates.”) This is a story about art, family, cruelty, the role of fate in one’s life. But mainly this is a story of a marriage, told from the perspectives of Lotto and Mathilde, husband and wife, married as they graduate from college after a two-week courtship. Both Lotto and Mathilde have great sadness in their pasts, but it has marked them in completely different ways. The reader doesn’t get to know much about Mathilde in the first half of the book – she is the wind beneath Lotto’s wings, so to speak. She works herself ragged to pay the bills while Lotto tries to find work as an actor, she cleans the house, she takes care of details like plane tickets and rental cars. She pushes him to embrace his emerging talent as a playwright. She is oddly lovely, slim, composed, reserved. Lotto is charming, sweet, lovable, attracting people as friends and would-be lovers right and left, but I didn’t completely warm to or buy his character.
And then “Furies” begins, and things we think we’ve learned about the marriage and Mathilde begin to shift, layers opening up and peeling away. Down we go with Mathilde through their years together, like a deep-sea dive, and we hold our breath as we unearth beautiful and ghastly treasures. I tore through the second half of the novel, and I realized when it was finished that I’d been silently and skillfully gutted. I have read a couple of reviews of Fates and Furies that bemoan the lack of well-drawn characters in an otherwise artful novel. I completely disagree – for me, Mathilde Satterwhite is one of the greatest literary characters I’ve read in years. She is so alive in my brain, so complicated and powerful and sad. Her tale, satisfyingly full of revelations, pushes this book into my Favorites of 2015 for sure.