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In Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff has written a story with a powerful plot reminiscent of a Greek myth with a Shakespearean pair of lovers at its heart. The flamboyantly named Lancelot Slatterwhite and Mathilde Yoder meet one night at university and two weeks later they are married: this is the story of their lives together and apart, told with an unerring sense of pace and a knack for finding an original turn of phrase.
The book is in two halves. In “Fates” the focus is on Lancelot – Lotto as his friends and family know him – the gentle, rich, damaged, arrogant and gifted playwright who believes he is destined for greatness. We meet him in his early childhood of privilege and tragedy and follow him through adolescent struggles and later artistic successes. In “Furies”, it is the enigmatic Mathilde who is in the spotlight. We have already seen her through Lotto’s eyes as his wife, the vital anchor whom he believes makes his creative genius possible – a pure, beautiful, loving woman. Her dark past and vengeful anger are unexpected revelations, her shrewd intelligence and resourcefulness less surprising. And although the two perspectives show different sides of the coin, the point is not that one can never really know what is going on in someone else’s mind, but that, as the book blurb says, perhaps “the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets”.
Groff enriches her novel with many literary references, in particular to the Greek myths that both inspire some of Lotto’s plays and the novel’s narrative. There is a sense of the written text being a performance in itself. An anonymous voice inserts comments, a skilfully deployed device that is perhaps a nod to the Greek chorus, or to remind us that these characters are mere actors in the play of the gods. Groff has fun with form too, including extracts from Lotto’s plays and a projected opera plot, and presenting one of the novel’s key scenes as a script. An important literary voice, Groff has created a book about art, love and life that is at once playful, moving and thought-provoking.
Publisher: William Heinemann, 2015