Reviewed by Vickie Fang
Groff’s novel is peopled with characters who walk the thin edge of reality and fantasy, so that Fates and Furies could be seen as either a fairy tale steeped in adolescent acne and the fear of being second best, or as life itself, made more vivid by its characters’ enormous appetites and its author’s shimmering prose. The book opens on Lotto and Mathilde’s wedding day with the young couple walking alone onto a beach like actors taking the stage. Groff writes, “A thick drizzle from the sky, like a curtain’s sudden sweeping. The seabirds stopped their tuning, the ocean went mute. Houselights over the water dimmed to gray.”
They make love in the sand, and Lotto thinks that, “Even old, he would waltz her into the dunes and have his way with her sexy frail bird bones, the plastic hips, the bionic knee. Drone lifeguards looming up in the sky, flashing their lights, booming Fornicators! Fornicators! to roust them guiltily out. This, for eternity.”
It is this marriage, filled with both passion and stagecraft, that forms the crux of the novel. At first both Lotto and Mathilde seem very much alike, both are abnormally tall, strikingly beautiful (or strikingly ugly, depending on your point of view), and serenely aware of their own and each others special nature. Mathilde is almost silent while Lotto is the flamboyant center of attention, but it is Mathilde’s very silence that makes her all the more fascinating to their Vassar classmates. As the novel, and the marriage, progress, we see Lotto’s star ascending and we learn how Mathilde’s smiling silence masks her endlessly competent labors on his behalf.
Lotto, whose name is actually Lancelot, is born to be larger than life; even his defeats reassemble themselves into triumphs or at least an easy passage to better things. This is Lotto realizing that something has gone wrong with his latest artistic creation. “On his internal dock, a great ship that he had wanted to climb and sail away on gave a low blast. The ropes were tossed. It moved silently out to the bay, and Lancelot was left alone onshore, watching it dip low over the horizon, watching it vanish.”
Inwardly, he is disappointed, alone, deeply aware of the distance between what he wished for and what he got. He is profoundly middle aged, in other words, and due for a career setback. Instead, however, the golden boy looks less than entirely pleased, and that look — not even a frown, certainly never intended to cause pain! — sends his collaborator running from the room in horror, sparks tragedy on the other side of the Atlantic, leaves the genius free to walk away from failure and compose his next great work.
It is easy for Lotto to be the light in this book, but when the world does not arrange itself to suit his needs, it is Mathilde’s dark manipulation, interpreted by some reviewers as her malevolence when she uses it in her own behalf, that keeps the star machinery running. The interplay of light and dark in this book takes on mythic proportions, particularly in the second part when Mathilde’s sad past is revealed and she chooses to settle some scores. Groff’s stunning use of language, her frequent dips into the past and future, swiftly changing points of view, and clever use of authorial asides elevate this novel to a grand fable about the nature and limits of fate. Her careful depiction of this one man and woman and their decades spent together make it a well crafted story about the nature and limits of one couple’s marriage.