Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff’s novel on the Longlist for the National Book Award, begins with a honeymoon and ends with a wedding. It’s a narrative choice that would feel overly sentimental if it weren’t for the dark exploration of marriage that rests between these two events. For Lotto and Mathilde, the main characters in the decades-spanning story, marriage is not overly idealized or cloyingly romantic. Instead, it’s a safe harbor for two people desiring to escape the past.
Lotto is a golden boy of the Vassar theater, blessed with privilege and a magnetic charm. Mathilde is an enigmatic classmate with no friends, no family and a look described as “odd,” but she immediately wins Lotto’s heart. At a cast party shortly before graduation, Lotto drops to one knee and asks Mathilde to marry him—even before he knows her name. Two weeks later, they are husband and wife.
Groff doesn’t play their youthful, spontaneous marriage for drama. Although their friends are convinced it won’t last, Mathilde and Lotto find something in one another that they desperately need. Together they grow up, struggling to pay the bills after Lotto is disinherited by his irate mother in an act of protest against their marriage. But Lotto finally finds success as a playwright, and the couple begins the slow climb to comfort.
Of course, their ascension is far from simple. Lotto leans heavily on Mathilde, needing her in such a visceral and emotional way that she becomes his anchor. As they gradually age, Lotto begins thinking “wife” before “Mathilde,” neatly summing up his sense of dependence. She is a part of him—and of his career—the crucial piece that holds it all together.
We view events through Lotto’s eyes for the first half of the story (titled “Fates”), getting to know Mathilde, her calm demeanor and her constant sacrifice for the genius of her husband. She simultaneously appears greater than their relationship and yet diminished in the light of his success. Her devotion to Lotto, to their marriage and to his career is never called into question.
Yet the tension of the story, which takes hairpin turns in the space of a few lines, rests in the ability of two people to live together and to be so deeply in love without truly knowing one another. Both Lotto and Mathilde believe they understand each other, and they do so in a way that few people in their small circle of wealth and tragedy ever will. But when Groff switches to Mathilde’s perspective in a non-linear retelling of the character’s life (“Furies”), as opposed to Lotto’s strictly chronological sequence of events, we see that Lotto barely knew the woman he loved. Her past, her motives, her actions—he remained blissfully in the dark during their marriage. The only thing left as pure as Lotto once saw it is Mathilde’s love for him.
Fates and Furies delivers a thrilling, dark tale that does justice to the complexities of marriage. In Lotto and Mathilde, the reader discovers two individuals pulling each other into the future and finding comfort in the one thing they do not doubt: their love.