‘Fates and Furies,’’ Lauren Groff’s pyrotechnic new novel, tells the story of a marriage and of marriage writ large. It is also an exploration of character — good, evil, flat, round, genetic, forged by circumstance, all of the above — and a wild play upon literary history. Groff grafts the contemporary fiction of suburban anomie and New York manners onto künstlerroman, myth, and epic in a dazzling fusion of classic and (post)modern, tragedy and comedy.
Lancelot Satterwhite, known as Lotto, is the son of Florida bottled water magnate Gawain and his wife, Antoinette, who performed before her marriage as a Weeki Wachee mermaid and Disney World Cinderella. From birth, Lotto is the fairy-tale knight of his name and parentage, a golden boy of privilege with “a sun blazing in him,” the embodiment of light and warmth, about whom the label genius is liberally tossed.
Though Lotto undergoes the travails of a contemporary epic hero — the loss of his father, exile to a cold New England boarding school, disinheritance, the failure of his acting career, a badly broken leg, and subsequent depression — he rebounds in triumph after each setback. “No matter what, you win. It all works out for you in the end. Always,” says Mathilde, his wife.
Tall like her husband, Mathilde Yoder is otherwise his antithesis, an “[i]ce queen” without family or friends, “a girl who was as pure as snow, a sad, lonely girl.” Of course the two fall madly in love at first sight across a crowded room of drunk Vassar students. When they marry, a scant two weeks later, and their friends make bets on how long the marriage will last, nobody is more surprised than Mathilde to find in Lotto not just lust, but long-term love, family, and “home.”
In short, the knight rescues the lady, but as the novel progresses, and Mathilde supports Lotto throughout his career, first as an unsuccessful actor, then as a wildly successful playwright, it becomes less and less clear who has rescued whom — and from what.
Groff deftly leads Mathilde and Lotto, along with a recurring assortment of family members and friends, through the stages of marriage — infatuation, intimacy, disillusionment, renewal — and the successes and failures of adulthood. The years pass in a series of parties — one character later recalls, “Remember when Lotto and Mathilde had the grandest love story ever? And their parties!” — followed by a series of Lotto’s plays. The novel is also carefully structured by its two sections, “Fates” and “Furies,” the first evoking destiny, the second vengeance, as befits a plot that seems at first simplistic, if pleasurable, but becomes increasingly complex, dynamic, and surprising.
If “Fates and Furies’’ is a remarkable feat of writing, the experience of reading it is in large part exhilarating, but in small parts irritating. Groff’s command of allusion (myths, but also the novels of her contemporaries, like Meg Wolitzer’s “The Interestings’’ and Donna Tartt's “The Goldfinch’’), imagery (fire, cold, water), and the puzzle pieces of her characters and plot thrill. So do her words, phrases, and sentences, which bubble up like poetry: “deeply depressed, fracking depressed, deep-shale shattered.” Exhilaration comes too as the narrative progresses, clarifying and revising Lotto and Mathilde’s story up to the very last pages.
What, then, could be irritating? The sense, in the first half of the book, before the plot truly starts to unspool, that Lotto is an oblivious egotist, and we don’t necessarily need nearly 400 pages of him. The implausible abandonment of Lotto’s 9-year-old sister, Rachel, in an airport with “an unaccompanied minor tag hanging around her neck” until a couple of “kind but stern hikers . . . offered her a ride.” The silly joke of naming Lotto and Mathilde’s dog “God.” But if, in the moment, such authorial choices seem dubious, they are, in the end, largely redeemed by the book’s grand arc and vision.
Groff maintains her hold on the reader’s faith in good part because of her own visible faith in literature, language, and her characters, whom she seems to truly love: golden narcissistic Lotto, shrewd mysterious Mathilde, even Lotto’s best friend, the ultimately triumphant yet eternally repellent underdog Chollie. She has faith, too, in the complexities of marriage. While Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage is unique, it also, like every other, registers the ubiquitous “[p]aradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely; you do know someone entirely.” Indeed, marriage, it turns out, is like fiction: We can never know the story of Lotto and Mathilde entirely; we know it entirely.