Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff
The opening lines of this novel capture the reader immediately. The short staccato sentences rush at the reader who races after them, so beautiful is the prose. The story examines personalities and relationships, marriages and what goes into them, and then it also examines different types of love, loss, identity, shame and guilt. These things shape us all as we deal with what comes in and out of our lives. The novel begins with a young couple affectionately devouring each other with their love as they walk down the beach. Although they barely know each other, Lancelot (Lotto), and Mathilde (Aurélie), have impulsively married, in secret, after a brief courtship. Their joy is obvious as they soon fall to the sand and make love passionately. When suddenly, she becomes offended by something he says, the idea that he owns her, even figuratively, he is mystified. She is showing a side of herself that he has not seen before. We soon learn that they have lots of secrets from each other.
This story is divided into two parts. The first part, “Fates”, engages us with Lancelot Satterwhite and his worldview. Born to Antoinette and Gawain, it was his Aunt Sallie, his father’s sister, who decided he should be called Lotto, rather than his too sophisticated given name which was Lancelot. Lancelot was the "Golden Child" until his father’s sudden death at age 46. His mother, bereft and pregnant with his sister, Rachel, suddenly decides to sell their assets, including the highly successful family business. She moves the family to a new, much smaller home and begins a more frugal lifestyle. Whereas in his previous life he was catered to and loved by all, he was now, at the awkward age of 15, dealing with the agonies of puberty, cystic acne, loneliness and grief. In a strange neighborhood, a strange house, and a strange school, he began to flounder. Although he was a likable sort, since he was generous and didn’t harbor bad thoughts about anyone, he made few friends except for a pair of twins, Chollie and Gwennie, three years older than he and more socially aware. When he got into trouble one night, after becoming sexually involved with Gwennie, he was banished by his mother and exiled to a private boarding school. She thought it was for the best, but it made matters worse for him. There, he was nicknamed Bumblefuck, which explains the environment he endured in his new life. Once well groomed and good looking, he began to grow unkempt. He had difficulty adjusting, but excuse after excuse prevented his return home for a visit. Although his Aunt Sallie and his sister Rachel visited and shared some vacations with him as years passed, his mother never did. As she became more and more obese and more and more agoraphobic, her varied illnesses prohibited her from doing many things and their estrangement grew. Their fragile relationship existed on the internet only.
Lotto's increased sexual activity and promiscuity somewhat resolved his issue of loneliness, but it was his discovery of acting that finally set him free and gave him a “raison d’etre”. One night, after a performance, when most everyone was high and/or drunk, Mathilde walked into a cast party. He had previously noticed her and was now completely smitten. He fell to his knees before her and proposed marriage. Mathilde had actually already set her sights on Lotto, intending to seduce him, because she had heard he was wealthy. Soon, however, she was madly in love with him. When his mom disowned him because she disapproved of the match and their failure to get an annulment, she never missed the money or regretted her actions. She adored Lotto. Their marriage was kismet.
The second part of the book, “Furies”, takes us deeper into Mathilde’s worldview. Once, she too had been adored, but then, at the tender age of four, she did something awful; she became a “bad seed” in everyone’s eyes. She was abandoned by her parents, bounced around from foster home to foster home and then to the homes of strange relatives who bore no love for her. She was never shown true affection or acceptance but was rather tolerated since they all believed the worst of her. She lived in the shadow of a tragedy that marked her for life. Her name, Aurélie, pronounced orally, made her the butt of jokes so she changed it to the more sophisticated Mathilde. Lotto breathed new life into that frail self-image, into her damaged soul. While Mathilde did whatever she had to do to survive, Lancelot, more or less, took it for granted that he would always survive. Mathilde expected nothing while Lancelot innocently expected everything as his due. Both rejected, they were broken people who made each other whole. Mathilde catered to Lotto’s every need, and, in return, he adored her, gave her the love she craved. Her unconditional love made him, once again, the “golden child”. What more could either of them ask for?
Mathilde worked behind the scenes, making secret alliances in order to make ends meet when Lotto could not provide for their needs. Over the years, she spurred him onward and upward. She engineered his progress, propped him up when he despaired, essentially wrote, produced and directed his life. He became a successful playwright largely due to her efforts on his behalf when she encouraged him to give up acting. He actually thought that she was happy to be what he inferred was the lesser member of the family, happily giving up her own future to support his so that she could then share in his success, so secure was he in his perceived superior talent and she so content in her subservient place in that life.
When Lotto suddenly died, young like his father, there didn’t seem to be a Mathilde any longer. She retreated inside herself, neglected her hygiene, then alternatively, she engaged in promiscuous behavior and cared little about anything but ridding herself of her pain, her loss, and her feeling of emptiness. On the outside, their marriage seemed to work very well, and everyone had assumed it was the perfect match that they could not achieve for themselves. Behind the scenes, though, Lotto’s friend Chollie had resented Mathilde for taking Lotto’s attention away from him. He was waiting for revenge. Lotto’s mother, too, was jealous of the love Lotto showered on Mathilde, at her expense and was seeking revenge. Soon, Mathilde, enraged, would want to seek vengeance upon those who deliberately set out to come between them. The loyalty and devotion of Aunt Sallie and Rachel finally helped her to reenter her life. They revealed a secret to her that changed her outlook; she had an epiphany. Her fury toward her perceived enemies abated, and she began to look at her future differently, more hopefully. She began to see a way to continue to live with Lancelot, if only by preserving his work and his memories.
Underlying this tale is the fact that while Lotto and Mathilde seemed perfectly suited to each other, they also both deceived each other. Was their relationship and their marriage all that it seemed to be on the surface, or were there troubles brewing beneath that outer calm and smooth façade? After more than two decades of marriage, they had, unexpectedly, kept many secrets from each other. Did they ever really fully know each other? Was the marriage perfect or was it their creation that looked perfect? Were they both merely seeking the love of a family they missed and which they provided for each other, to some degree, absent children? Would the marriage of the original Aurélie and the original Lancelot have been kismet too?
Throughout the book there are references to Shakespeare's themes and characters. All of Lotto’s plays have undertones of Shakespeare within their seams. As the story plays out, there are explanations in brackets occurring after some of the important moments. They are there, like tongue in cheek revelations, just in case the reader isn’t aware of the magnitude of the idea presented; they are there to help provide perspective for the reader. Like the asides in a stage play, they are offstage remarks to enlighten the viewer or the voyeur.
Lotto was a playwright who puts his life into his plays, his feelings and his conflicts are all there as are Mathilde’s. It appeared that he was the successful member of the family, but it was she who had secretly collaborated with him, engineered his train and helped to expose his talent to the world.
Lotto and Mathilde had a romance with life. Every sentence was a joy to read, like the words of Aunt Sally, “But don’t you fret. I’ll make sure you’re Lotto. And because she could move behind wallpaper like the mouse she resembled, Lotto is what they called him.” So Antoinette gave Lotto his life, Sallie gave him his name, and Mathilde nurtured him until he blossomed, then withered and died. The name Mathilde provided Aurélie with the perception of sophistication, but it was Lotto who gave life to Mathilde, and without him, she almost withered and died.