First I should say that I can’t write about this book without giving an extra strong SPOILER ALERT. I was expecting a book about a marriage, the first half about the man’s more sunny perspectives (Fates) and the woman’s, well, less sunny view (Furies), with a Greek myth flavor. That turned out to be wrong.
The man (Lancelot, called Lotto) had an unusual life story before meeting the woman (Mathilde). His mother had been employed as a mermaid, his father was named Gawain, he was banished to prep school for bad behavior never to return home, he chanced upon a student who had hung himself as he was on his way to steal a gun to shoot himself with. And that takes us to his college years. He went to Vassar and when his fellow high school teenage delinquent friend called Chollie showed up, he took him in. Lotto slept with countless women, all of whom he found reason to appreciate. Upon meeting Mathilde, a fellow student at Vassar at a party in the last weeks of school, he publicly asked her to marry him and never slept with anyone else again.
His mother, the former mermaid, cut off his huge inheritance because of the marriage. After years of unsuccessful acting auditions, Lotto stumbled into writing Greek myth-based plays that brought fame and fortune. Mathilde continues to be an essential part of his success. Lotto is an oblivious, self-centered but kindly person who believes Mathilde is the best person in the world. He dies of aneurysm at age 46; a month before he died he is told by his old friend Chollie that Mathilde has slept with her former boss. He swims into the ocean intending to end his life.
If Lotto’s life story was unusual, Mathilde’s was one horrifying twist after another. She was born into a Breton family in 1968. Her role in the death of her little brother results in her parents’ rejection of her so she never sees them again. At times the plot seems inspired by Dickens or a fairy tale, for example at age 11 she is sent to live with her evil uncle in New York who rarely sees her. When she is college age, she is offered the position of sex slave to a man who pays her way through college on condition she spend each weekend with him, never sleep with another man during that time, and perform unspeakable degrading acts. It was at the end of this contract that she meets Lotto.
Lotto loves a woman he does not know at all; she is willing to do whatever is needed for them to succeed. In their lean years before Lotto begins to write, she takes a job at the art gallery owned by her former “benefactor,” though sexual contact is not part of that arrangement. She secretly cleans up and edits his work and creates a comfortable, entertaining environment for him. The lives of these two are not just uncommon, but fraught with symbolism. The murderous child who is victimized by adults becomes a blank slate to her husband and takes care of all his needs. The son of a mermaid and Gawain is named Lancelot, banished, then disinherited and remains sweet and oblivious. Though I thought about this book for days, I remained confused about these symbols and twists. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award and was highly recommended by many reviewers. I recommend James Wood’s review in the New Yorker.
Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies, Riverhead Books, 2015, 400 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.