The old adage tells us that “There are two sides to every story.” Lauren Groff has cleverly split up her acclaimed novel “Fates and Furies” in deliberate, literal homage to this concept.
Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite is the hero of the first half of the novel, a man who since early childhood rides the tide of life, letting “fate”, and more often women, determine his path. Lotto is a gregarious creature, a man who simultaneously acts a serial womanizer and sees himself as a benign lover of women, indiscriminate and therefore noble in his conquests. To him, sex is “vigorous frustration abatement”, a way to exorcise his demons while blessing whomever is game with his attention. Once he meets and immediately proposes to his future wife, Lotto goes from falling into bed after bed to contentedly surfing one woman’s wake, unaware that she is behind his every success.
Just how blind and misguided Lotto is, the reader and Lotto’s adoring public soon discover. During a panel presentation, Lotto exposes his unenlightened core, digging deeper and deeper while expecting applause.
“We’re all given a finite amount of creativity, just like we’re give a finite amount of life, and if a woman chooses to spend hers on creating actual life and not imaginary life, that’s a glorious choice. When a woman has a baby, she’s creating so much more than just a made-up world on the page! She’s creating life itself, not just a simulacrum. No matter what Shakespeare did, it’s so much less than your average illiterate woman of his age who had babies. …If women have historically demonstrated less creative genius than men, it’s because they’re making their creations internal, spending the energies on life itself.”
Lotto is shocked to discover that he has cast himself the villain, baffled that the audience and his wife are enraged by his misogyny.
And what of the “wife”? Mathilde is an enigma, a slowly revealed mystery. Throughout the “Fates” half of the story, Mathilde is cold, without history or much of a present, appropriately given the moniker “the Dragon Wife”.
“Hers was a quiet, subtle warfare, but she had always been a warrior.”
While the reader sees some of her work as her husband’s champion and sometimes puppeteer, she is given no insight into who Mathilde truly is.
“Somehow, despite her politics and her smarts, she had become a wife, and wives, as we all know, are invisible. The midnight elves of marriage.”
In the second half of the novel, Groff deftly continues the story from Mathilde’s perspective, while intermittently revealing Mathilde’s history. The past – both hers and Lotto’s – comes into greater clarity. We discover that her one-dimensionality is a construct, developed painstakingly by Mathilde, a character of inhuman deliberation and control, inside of whom burn the “Furies”. Suddenly, we see Mathilde “… face downturned like a demure fucking bell-flower, while inside there was the maelstrom.” An older, more articulate Mathilde rages to herself about women and love:
“Conquers all! All you need is! Is a many-splendored thing! Surrender to! Like corn rammed down goose necks, this shit they’d swallowed since they were barely old enough to rest themselves in tulle.”
Groff’s characters are hard-edged and deeply flawed. The marriage between Fates (Lotto) and Furies (Mathilde) is both a shining example of life-long commitment and passion and, paradoxically, a parable of failure and disillusionment. The secrets kept are what binds this couple together and what rends the individuals. Fates and Furies is darkly comic and deeply disheartening.