What’s more worthwhile, a captivating book whose charms prove fleeting, or a difficult, at times painful book that stays with you long after you’ve finished it?
I’ve been asking myself this question for nearly a month, thanks to the shit kicking I took while reading Lauren Groff’s brilliant, yet aggravating, Fates and Furies. As lavish as Groff’s writing is, and as much as I loved its propulsive narrative, I wanted to do terrible things to this book once I’d finished it. Almost four weeks later, I get chills when I close my eyes and imagine throwing it off the Chrysler Building or drowning it in a bathtub.
But I’m still thinking about it, and that has to count for something.
Why, then, do I want to maniacally laugh and cry while setting it on fire in a garbage can?
Fates and Furies follows the lives of Lotto and Mathilde through two decades of marriage. They are madly in love, destined for greatness, tall, glamorous, the envy of everyone around them. They’re self-sacrificing. They’re generous. They’re passionate. They’re altruistic. They’re forgiving.
Or so it seems from Lotto’s perspective. Every story, we’re told, has two sides. “Storytelling is a landscape, and tragedy is comedy is drama. It simply depends on how you frame what you’re seeing.” And the key to every great marriage is not its truths, but its secrets.
For the first half of the novel we’re treated to the wonderful, gregarious, fascinating, creative, pulsating Lotto (short for Lancelot). We journey with him as he transitions from a struggling and broke actor to a world-famous playwright. The story has this energy, a kind of literary effervescence. It lit me up. There’s a sequence involving Lotto and a young composer as they try to collaborate on an opera, and it was as creatively stimulating as anything I’ve read in years. This was halfway through the novel, and Groff had me.
But then something catastrophic happens and the narrative switches perspectives. We’re thrown headlong into Mathilde’s story, back at the beginning of all of this, and we hear her very different side of things. Along with Lotto, we’ve been deceived this whole time.
“Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you’d crush them to paste. She never lied. Just never said.”
Mathilde’s story was devastating.
On the one hand it held up a mirror to this preposterous thing we call marriage and showed how flimsy and oblivious and ill-fated it can be. As a recently wed man, this was a genuinely disturbing read for me. As crazy as this story became, there’s no denying Groff’s point about how marriages (or relationships, for that matter) are largely built on lies. The lies we project so that others will love us, the lies we tell so they’ll continue loving us, the lies of omission we never tell because they’d stop loving us if we ever gave these lies a voice. I don’t remotely feel this way about my own marriage, but even as a possibility it’s unsettling.
On the other hand, Mathilde’s story destroyed me because it is so fucking absurd. My lingering negativity towards this novel is a testament to just how terrible the second half is, when you consider how much I adored the first. It almost feels like Groff lapses into satire. It’s just a devil-woman shy of Days of Our Lives, with its wicked uncles and forced prostitution and pregnancy scandals. It feels incredibly forced, especially since you’ve been waiting 200 pages to see what the crazy twists will actually be.
You’re waiting because every review, blog, or press release about Fates and Furies has hinged on the half-way twist in its narrative. There was so much hype surrounding this novel, and so many comparisons to Gone Girl, that it was really quite unfair. It did the book a huge disservice, as every reader went into it with their mind pre-blown. And once it’s been pre-blown it cannot be re-blown.
There was little that Groff could have done to live up to the hype, shy of some M. Night Shyamalan Hail Mary magic. As much as I disliked the second half, part of me wonders if I simply hate the fact that it didn’t blow me away. I didn’t have that “wait, that was what was actually happening?!” moment. And neither will you, because you’re expecting something better than what’s there.
But as I said before I’m still thinking about it. Quite a bit, actually. Most of the time I’m furious but that’s more than I can say for a lot of novels that I really, really enjoyed reading. And so I come back to my original question: is it better to enjoy a forgetful book, or to slug your way through something you’re going to think about for a long time?
“She was so tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too-worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off.”
With Fates and Furies, Groff definitely dropped a bomb. It’s left a mark on me, that’s for sure. Only time will tell if that mark is a battle scar I’m proud of or a hideous blemish I wish I was rid of. Probably both. As Groff tells us, it’s all a matter of how you frame what you’re seeing.
Bill Gates has a blog and he writes about books quite a bit. It’s orders of magnitude more interesting than anything Mark Zuckerberg has ever said about a book. This is legit, quality criticism. [Gates Notes]
Are you a Neil Patrick Harris fan? NPH gives us his top 10 books ever. Interesting list. [One Grand Books]
Wab Kinew is back as host of Canada Reads. This is good news. [Penguin]
The 25 Best Books of the Year (according to booksellers). [Lit Hub]
If you’ve ever wondered about the impact of Goodreads Choice awards on book sales, this might alarm you. [Goodreads]
13 books to read before they become movies in 2016. [Romper]
An uber-modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. And it’s written by a MAN, baby! [Publisher’s Weekly]
11 books that scared the shit out of Stephen King. [Bustle]
What’s the first “it” book of 2016? What Belongs To You. [Publisher’s Weekly]
A Book I Can’t Wait to Read
Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop.
Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel, and the true joy comes from the fact that, as certain letters are banned by the Council, Ella is unable to use them when writing her letters. So by the end of the novel it’s really this fascinating creative exercise on the part of author Mark Dunn.
If the critics can be believed, the result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic delight word lovers everywhere.