I’m a pusher. I admit it. Every time Fates and Furies comes up in conversation, I push people to read it. I plead, “Please, won’t someone read the book so that I can argue with you about whether or not it’s as bad as I think it is?” My friends tell me this is not a very convincing argument. But really, I’m flummoxed. Perplexed. President Obama named Fates and Furies his favorite book of 2015. That just weirds me out. And Amazon, well. That company’s choices rarely make sense to me in the bigger business picture (brick-and-mortar in 2015, really?), but I would have bet they’d have chosen Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me since they have gone with more general fiction by women authors for the past several years. (2012: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, 2013: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.) I’m not a prognosticator of any talent though. But generally speaking, I believe I’m a capable reader of text, and the greater context within which a book sits. And for that reason, I’m going to come out, despite feeling like a voice in the wilderness, and say it: I really disliked Fates and Furies.
When I have found someone to argue with about the book, I’ve often heard fandom of Ms. Groff herself used as the first line of defense. Arcadia, they say, was so good! I’ll admit that I have not read any of Ms. Groff’s previous books, so I had no expectations one way or another. I was just really excited to read it because the hype that preceded its release date put the book squarely in my scope: an investigation of two-sides of a marriage, while not all is as it seems. Sounded just about right. I generally prefer my fiction as introspective rather than gallivanting, academic versus overwrought. I put it on my wishlist.
Unfortunately, what I read was just another story about a woman assumed to be a Madonna, but exposed to be a Whore. More disappointingly because it was written by a woman. Yes, I’m bringing psychoanalysis and sexual politics into the discussion, but for a book that concerns itself with mythology and sex work and male and female stereotypes, it’s essential. I read a headline on NPR.org article about the book that explains Groff wanted to investigate “feminine rage” and that she wanted to create a character who was not done in by her anger, and certainly it’s important to respect an author’s intention, but I don’t see the through-line with the execution. The perplexing thing is, the character of Mathilde may not disintegrate in the face of her anger, but she is certainly gravely punished. A tale as old as time, and a patriarchal one that only reveals Mathilde to be guilty rather than evolved.
Part 1: Fates
And, for the most part, Groff had me as a willing passenger through the first half of the trip. Sure, Lotto was a bit of a preening cock, but not an empty-headed one. He loved his wife, he loved his life. So much in his life was accidental, or as Groff would categorize, fated. He rode each wave, using his physical stature and confidence and openness to protect his vulnerabilities. From the outside at least, he was the epitome of success, even after an accident hobbles him. Certainly some of his relationships went foul (his mother, his previous girlfriends) in the wake of his relationship with Mathilde and with his own fame (the two being intertwined) but in general he was unvexed by life up until the end of it, which comes early, and is darkened with a lie. He is told his wife has had an affair during their marriage; he dies believing that.
Part II: Furies
The novel is being celebrated for showing two perspectives of the same relationship, but that assessment seems like not much more than assimilated jacket-copy to me. The two sections could just as well have been two novels as the stories they tell are unsuccessfully integrated. (So much so that I doubted my own reading of the book, and had I liked it more, I’d challenge myself to read it again.) Likely there is context hidden within the retelling of Lotto’s plays, or his possible/potential bi-sexual relationship, that, if I were a closer reader, would hint at Mathilde’s true behavior or character (not always the same), but I saw the distinct separateness of the two stories are more stylistically empty than revealing.
More importantly, I believe the valid questioning that should be happening in regards to Mathilde’s character is ignored in favor of sensationalism. Readers seem titillatingly pleased that there is a complex, dark, and dirty woman behind a so-called great man. They liken Mathilde with the character of Amy in Gone Girl, though I think that’s likely only because we are unaccustomed to reading about darkly-complex women characters. But Mathilde isn’t some kind of feminist hero. Or avenging angel. Or even…a woman with her own story. She is the manifestation of the author’s, likely inadvertent, or I’d like to believe, adherence to the patriarchal Madonna/Whore vision of women.
So let me be clear: I’m not at all concerned about Mathilde’s choices. I’m not prudishly responding to her decision to pay for college with sex work. And I have no problem with her hiding that from a husband who willfully (I don’t doubt) chose to see Mathilde as his Madonna with a Mona Lisa smile. Nor do I fault her for searching out random fucks to deal with her grief. The issue I have is not with Mathilde–it’s with the consequences as Groff writes them.
Instead of a woman empowered, or even a secret, seedy life exposed, I see the story of a woman who is punished for her choices, for what she does in pursuit of the progress of her self. Sure, it’s possible to just read her as a predator. After all, she may truly have killed her baby brother, competition for the affection of her parents. But that could the false story of an unreliable narrator. Hard to tell, though however you decide to interpret that early event in her life may determine how you process the rest of her story. If you believe she did that, then perhaps she deserves her comeuppance. But if so, then why even waste time with Lotto’s story? (Unless we are to believe she killed him? Again, perhaps there is something hidden in the myths that his plays are based on that would point me in the right direction if I did a second close reading.) Or maybe we see her as being unjustly blamed, and the adults in her life treating her as an inconvenience at best. Still, I don’t see how any of those interpretations change our understanding of her story as it progresses to its end.
Here is what we know of Mathilde. In order to save her own life, she used her body as collateral. To put herself through school, she accepted her part in a relationship in which she was made to crawl across the floor for the pleasure of a powerful man. In the traditional sense of the word, she “whores” herself out. It’s not like she was ‘just’ a happily kept woman. Though she did regain some power once he fell for her, and she left when she had fulfilled her contract, how was she repaid for completing this business relationship? The gallery owner gets his revenge in the end, telling Lotto a different version of the what’s and when’s of his relationship with Mathilde that crushes Lotto’s (our hero!) illusions about his Madonna wife. Lotto dies believing her to be a whore. Yet, his death is so insignificant we barely even pause for a moment of silence before we’re on to Mathilde’s rollicking response.
We learn that Mathilde has been sacrificing her own talents, or rather, rerouted them, to bolster Lotto’s successes and profile. She has revised his work. She has pulled strings. She has manipulated the world to better succor his fears and insecurities. She has used her talents for compartmentalizing her two selves to create a bubble of certainty for Lotto. And to what result? Yes, she gets to live, in effect, the high life. She is a success because he is a success. And when he dies? What is she left with? While mourning for her love (I don’t think it’s a question that she loved him and he loved her) she is also mourning for that part of herself that died with him. The part of herself that she had infused into his life. The loss causes her to launch herself on a pursuit of physical connection and assault to either embody the pain she feels in her heart or to fill the loss of her purpose. These pickups ultimately lead her into a brief incestuous consort with a mini-Lotto that ends with her being robbed of the one last thing she had left of the successful life she and Lotto had created together.
I’m not asking for Fates and Furies to be a different book. I’m not criticizing Groff for the decisions she made, because the tale, even if I’m unsatisfied with the undercurrent, is hers to tell. I can gripe about the feeling that the two parts of the story weren’t integrated enough (i.e., I wanted more hints to Mathilde’s true character in the first section, even if we were blind to them, so the reveal didn’t feel so unfounded in the second half.) But perhaps that was part of the point: Mathilde did such a good job of hiding her true self that no one could have known. I can also laud that which I think Groff did remarkably. While I found the writing to be somewhat stylistically deliberate, she is no doubt a great writer who was working with an extremely ambitious agenda. Just Lotto’s mother as mermaid/siren made flesh–selfless or dangerous?–lures me into thinking there is so much more to this book than can possibly be captured on first reading.
Unfortunately, I’ll likely never delve back into Fates and Furies because instead of being multi-faceted and intriguing, Lotto and Mathilde’s story is an anticlimactic one that disappoints rather than invigorates. And it troubles me as to why smart readers like Obama or the editors at Amazon willfully neglect and instead celebrate the tired revelation of Mathilde’s character–both in suffering and in assertive self-reliance–as just another version of a patriarchal trope.