Lauren Groff’s fast, furious ‘Fates’ probes the myths of a marriage


‘Fates and Furies’

By Lauren Groff


$27.95, 390 pages

Lauren Groff’s epic “Fates and Furies” may send you searching for that dog-eared copy of Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes” you haven’t touched since sophomore English. A sort of literary Colossus of Rhodes, Groff’s grand and ambitious tragedy straddles millennia, planting one foot in ancient Greco-Roman myth, the other in the more familiar terra firma of modern American lechery.

Pausing to research the endless references to Sophocles, Homer and Shakespeare may quickly escalate into a diversion, but it still can’t overshadow the spry and lusty storytelling. Groff’s effervescent language explains why the novel has been long-listed for the National Book Award. Even readers who couldn’t care less about “Oedipus at Colonus” can sink their teeth into this juicy allegory of a marriage gone sour.

We meet the novel’s star-crossed lovers Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder when they’re young and beautiful. He’s 22, tall and entitled, a charismatic golden boy exiled from a rich Florida family. She’s “the white whale of Vassar,” a beauty queen known to be secretive and diffident. The couple elope at graduation and consummate the marriage on a chilly Maine beach. Over the next two decades, a demanding but adoring partnership blossoms.

At least that’s how Lotto sees it.

The first half of the novel, “Fates,” is told largely from his point of view, including his sun-kissed childhood on a plantation and later estrangement from Antoinette (aka “Muvva”), a larger-than-life materfamilias who mixes the worst of “The Glass Menagerie” with “Grey Gardens.”

Groff, who lives in Gainesville, Fla., drifts into Karen Russell country with a flashback to Antoinette playing a mermaid at Weeki Wachee and Cinderella in Orlando. Later, teenaged Lotto is lured by the siren songs of sex and drugs, which gets him cast out of paradise and shipped off to boarding school. He finally meets Mathilde near the end of college, though her reputation precedes her. “Beauty like hers cast glimmers on the walls even across campus … She’d been so far above Lotto — so far above every person at the school — she had become mythological. Friendless. Icy.”

In a marvelous feat of compression, Groff squeezes the first eight years of the marriage into a single chapter. A series of parties in their subterranean West Village apartment reveals changing fortunes (Lotto is luckless as an actor; Mathilde plays breadwinner) and old friendships tested. Describing their fellow “yuppies in embryo,” the author tips a hand to the greater thematic concerns of wealth and creativity. “In twenty years, they’d have country houses and children with pretentious literary names and tennis lessons and ugly cars and liaisons with hot young interns. Hurricanes of entitlement, all swirl and noise and destruction, nothing at their centers.”

The acrobatic time jumps accelerate in the next chapter, which uses a clever shorthand to demonstrate Lotto’s metamorphosis into beloved “playwright of the bougie.” Groff moves the story along using vignettes of Lotto’s stage productions, while a lingering excerpt from “The House in the Grove” raises more questions than answers. Although it’s clear the marriage has chilled the already strained relationship with “Muvva,” the full depth of the iceberg isn’t revealed until the novel’s second half, “Furies.”

Even without Edith Hamilton, you might recall that the furies of Greek myth were infernal goddesses of vengeance, which hopefully isn’t too much of a spoiler for Mathilde’s share of the book. “Like a squid from the deep, the story had turned itself inside out,” Lotto muses right before his “witchy wife” seizes the spotlight. Groff ends “Fates” by returning to the beach of the novel’s opening, a fine place to begin throwing ice water on almost everything we thought we knew about the relationship. For starters, Mathilde wasn’t a virgin when they married, nor is Lotto’s oft-repeated tale of their first meeting exactly accurate.

The sainted spouse “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.” The sentiment could just as easily describe the author. If the first 10 chapters of “Fates and Furies” read as an amusing dramedy on the struggle between art, commerce and the social ties that bind creators, the ferocious finale rushes into darker realms.

Groff takes an almost malevolent delight in dropping one bombshell after another. As we revisit earlier scenes, she doesn’t pull punches in exposing the volatile sexual politics underlying the entire narrative.

Mathilde later concludes that “somehow, despite her politics and smarts, she had become a wife, and wives, as we all know, are invisible. The midnight elves of marriage.” Or in this case, elves, angels, gremlins and harpies all at once.

It’s funny that in a work so permeated with classical myth that more isn’t made of muses, an obvious analogy once Mathilde’s actual role in her husband’s success comes to light. More alarming are disclosures regarding Antoinette and the swampy family feud.

With its lusty appetite for double entendre and more sex than a Jackie Collins paperback, “Fates and Furies” tap-dances the line between scholarly and smutty. The author proves she can make sorcery happen on the page, even if some of the excerpts feel like dead-ends or detours.

Overall, Groff has a rare gift for managing complex plots and thematic devices. Using Heroic Age archetypes as a doorway into modern gender dynamics makes the book feel timely and timeless, a major accomplishment for any writer. For the sake of readers, this thought-provoking novel deserves an annotated edition that explains the constant allusions: “Fates and Furies — and Footnotes.”