Fates and Furies

9781594634475_custom-a1c60d0db7c4d3d9fce99ec338b463c8ea95ca03-s400-c85Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is ostensibly a story about marriage. It spans more than 20 years, taking us through its hills, valleys, and plateaus, making sure we see everything through both sets of eyes. But it’s also a bizarre kind of fairy tale with mermaids, knights, and passion plus a delicate dusting of the Southern Gothic—just don’t expect some kind of typical “happily ever after.” There’s far more to the story than that.

Lotto (somehow short for Lancelot) and Mathilde meet at the end of college in the late 1980s or early ’90s and marry almost immediately. Lotto shines, living life as the sun around which everyone he meets can’t help but orbit. Mathilde, dark and beautiful and mysterious, shines specially for Lotto—“He loved her first for the stun of her.”

Groff’s use of language performs a delicate dance over the course of the book’s nearly 400 pages. She’s poetic and playful, often twirling toward the edge of overwrought without ever really falling over. She has a wonderful knack for creating vibrant, visceral images, several of which I expect might stay with me for quite a while.

I braced myself going into this book. I was ready for the themes, the topic, the deep exploration of a relationship, of love to strike a chord and send me reeling.

I’m less than seven months away from my own wedding. From marriage. I’ve always been an emotional reader and it helps to be a little prepared when touching on themes I might heavily relate to. I was sure that something in Fates and Furies would set me off, but nothing ever did.

It had sadness, to be sure. It had joy. But I never really related to it in that way. Nor did I need to to enjoy it, but I was surprised none the less. It was sort of an odd expectation to have on my part, but I couldn’t help it.

I did enjoy it overall. But something held it back from greatness for me. To start, I think the first half (“Fates”) is undeniably stronger than the second. And second, I thought that Groff left some strange loose threads. The plot moved forward and I could see that she was setting events in motion in order to explain the relationships between characters or their motives, but when all was said and done I’d look at what I’d read and think, “Well… okay but that didn’t actually explain anything. I still have no idea why these people relate to each other this way or why this happened that way.”

And that was frustrating not because I needed to have everything explained away, but because I could see Groff was trying to explain something to me, but was failing. I wasn’t getting out of it whatever it was she wanted me to. I was still lost.

Not constantly, but most instances of such confusion came in the second half of the book as things were winding down and working towards a conclusion. That put this extra weight on everything—the first half had me primed to learn more, to have the gaps in my knowledge filled in. The second half couldn’t deliver all the way. I also have to admit that some of what it did deliver was extremely unsatisfying. I felt like I deserved better and so did the characters.

Ultimately, I had a good time with Fates and Furies. It was even hard to put down at times. But overall, it only ever made it to “pretty good” for me. I was hoping for a standout, but this just wasn’t it.

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The Familiar Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May

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If Mark Z. Danielewski is known for one thing and one thing only, it’s that he isn’t afraid to put his readers to work. With House of Leaves, my mind reeled as I held the book sideways and upside down and flipped back and forth from footnote to footnote. And if that book taught me anything about Danielewski’s writing, it’s that the payoff will be worth it.

And so I tore into The Familiar, Vol. 1: One Rainy Day in May—the first of a proposed 27-volume series—like a child on Christmas morning, devouring almost 900 pages in just a couple of weeks. Granted, it’s the fastest 880 pages you’ve ever read thanks to Danielewski’s love of inventive page layouts, spacing, and fonts. But trust me when I say that this book puts you to work.

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An example of a page layout playing with the recurring imagery of the rain

Inside its pages you’ll find the story of nine intersecting lives that span generations and languages and take place around the world from LA’s Echo Park to a high-rise in Singapore. At its heart, though, is the story of a little girl named Xanther who heads out one rainy May morning to get a dog. What a terrifyingly simple premise to kick off the thousands of pages to come.

And One Rainy Day in May—like Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses before it—covers just that: a single rainy day in May.

Aside from Xanther, we hear the voices of jingjing, a drug addict in Singapore; Luther, an LA gangbanger; Anwar and Astair, Xanther’s parents; Cas, a computer scientist in Texas; and Isandòrno, whose chapters I couldn’t understand at all (Wikipedia tells me he’s an existentialist in Mexico, which I personally think is about as good an explanation as none at all).

It’s unfair to expect the connections between these characters to be obvious this early on—after all, there are 26 volumes to go with this tale. So I did my best to cut the book some slack there. Sometimes I could see the threads, however thin, that were tying things together, but when I couldn’t I resolved not to focus on it and to simply plow forward.

That seemed to be my motto during this book: forward, ever forward. At first, I’d get hung up on the details, pushing myself to make sense of them and often trying in vain to understand whatever I felt I was missing. But then I remembered that I wasn’t reading this to punish myself.

No one was going to quiz me at the end of the day. No one would mock me for my imperfect understanding. No one would hate me for finding it difficult or, dare I say, unenjoyable at times.

So I moved forward.

I picked up whatever crumbs I could along the way and arrived at the end with a sense of accomplishment.

Ultimately—and I’m hesitant to admit it—I think I’m a bit disappointed with Vol. 1. I had such high hopes, but I found so much of this volume inscrutable. The first time I met jingjing, I had to scour the internet for some kind of summary because I just couldn’t make sense of what was happening or even who was talking. An excerpt will help illuminate my struggles:

“they saysay she tutor demons, lah. saysay mice dance to her finger snap and a pelesit :.Animistic spirit frequently aligned with Polong.: does her bidding. saysay sa-rukup rang bumi :. World Coverer .: fly to her window and call her mother. they saysay a lot.”

In rereading a portion of that chapter just now, I’m delighted to discover that I found it infinitely easier to parse out. But I’m not here to theorize on the potential benefits of rereading. I’m here to talk simply about what I’ve read.

And I just couldn’t wrap my head around this book enough to see the meaningful connections I know Danielewski wanted me to find. A second pass appears to be mandatory for me if I’m to truly get everything I can out of this and I’m unsure how I feel about that.

I don’t mind putting the work into reading a book that I feel deserves it, but I’ve never encountered one that seemed to ask quite so much of me. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair to consider that a fault or a flaw.

Still, I am far from all sour grapes and disappointment. On the contrary, I couldn’t be looking forward to reading Volume 2 more. I know I’ve only just entered a labyrinth and that it’s here that it feels the most daunting. But I’m willing to let Danielewski lead me deeper because right now? I still trust that what I’ll find at the end will be well worth it.