Lauren Groff is a wonderful writer. Her sentences crackle with zest and energy, each one a masterclass in how to observe the ordinary in original and arresting ways. In Fates and Furies, her third novel, she tackles deep philosophical concerns – love, art, death, among others – delivers Dickensian third-act plot twists, and examines a marriage that is both faithful and childless, a refreshingly modern take on the institution.
The story follows Lotto and Mathilde, a preternaturally attractive young couple whose lives are as glamorous as their names would suggest. He is the heir to a bottled water empire with ambitions in the theatre; she a cool, sophisticated part-time model with a watchful intelligence that’s wasted on her contemporaries. They meet on the eve of college graduation, elope and are immediately disinherited. They struggle through their bohemian twenties, Mathilde emerging as the primary breadwinner.
One of the most striking things about Groff’s novel is the seeming artificiality of this story. Their poverty never feels immediate; a good chunk of Lotto’s dialogue is quoted verbatim from Shakespeare. In fact, for its first half, titled Fates, it’s impossible to tell what Groff wants us to think of these people: whether she is holding them up for ridicule, or, being a very serious writer, takes their cartoonishness seriously.
This changes with Furies, the second part. Here Groff shatters the façade she’s built so meticulously, shifts the focus of the narrative from Lotto to Mathilde, and in doing so deconstructs everything that has taken place up to this point. A central preoccupation of the novel is the power of what is not said, and in Furies these silences are filled, with answers that are often uncomfortable and raise even more questions.
The novel’s spiritual sibling is Gone Girl, which used a similarly tricky narrative structure to place marriage under the microscope. But thought Groff’s vision is just as dark, her heroine equally calculating and mysterious, her view on marriage is ultimately hopeful: that it can make a good person stronger, and a strong person more human.
Fates and Furies is a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction.