Fates 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.