Only Lauren Groff could tell a successful story using character names such as Mathilde, Chollie, and Lancelot (Lotto). Her ability to pace a story is reminiscent of Hawthorne- slow, abrupt, pointed. My favorite thing about this novel is the foresight Groff gave herself from page one. The bigger story, the twists along with the coming to terms with the twists, existed close behind the rest (the furies, it seems, sat alongside the fates, patiently, knowing they’d get their turn).
“The world revealed itself as it was. Threatened from below with darkness.”
The story is divided into two parts: fates and furies. Lancelot Satterwhite (Lotto) waltzes us through the first part of the story, beautiful and charismatic, a boy from wealth struggling (but smiling) to find his place. Lotto’s father died at a young age, and his mother, Antoinette, became increasingly withdrawn and religious. Lotto’s loneliness in his youth is not helped by his infant sister Rachel, nor his loving aunt Sallie; instead it is a group of rebellious teenagers he finds solace in. Chollie and Gwennie, a set of twins, and Michael, a boy with a crush on Lotto. “Four troubled kids in early October, through twilight deep into the dark. Moon rose blowsily, pissing white on water. Forces of nature, perfect in beauty, perfectly ephemeral, they guessed.” Invincible, they thought themselves, and who didn’t at that age, especially in the midst of exploration, of realizing that the scale of good and bad you’ve been spoon-fed may be incorrect? What can harm you? The group experiments with drugs and alochol, spending a hot Florida summer on the beach getting burnt and poisoned until Lotto finds himself at a party, having sex for the first time with Gwennie, the act only just being finished as the house catches on fire, both Lotto and Gwennie jumping out of the window half-naked. Groff uses bracket marks to interject omniscient narration throughout the novel, and she does so about this night with Gwennie: “[This day would bend back and shine itself into everything.]” She’s an expert handler, professional at telling readers what we need to pay attention to. It is this event which prompts Lotto’s family to send him away- he is forced to go to boarding school in Maine, a cold and desolate brick building in which Lotto does not fit in. He struggles the hardest he will ever struggle at this time of his life: Lotto contemplates and attempts to follow through with suicide, walking to the Dean’s office late at night (he intended to steal the Dean’s hand gun). Instead, he finds another student his age, nicknamed Jelly Roll, hanging from the chandelier. Lotto’s own suicide thwarted by another, haunting and permanent in his memory. During his supreme grief, Lotto’s English/Drama teacher (Denton Thrasher) molests Lotto, taking advantage of the boy’s extreme loneliness and vulnerability. Groff does not talk much about this scene, and a reader can in fact easily miss it. Thrasher does, interestingly enough, reappear later in the novel, and Lotto’s discomfort in talking with the old teacher is something Mathilde notices too, noting his shortness and desire to get away from the man as quickly as possible (something that is very un-Lotto-like). Lotto reaches out of this darkness by meeting Samuel, a soon to be lifelong friend who helps Lotto reach the personhood all have come to know as Lotto: sleeping around, everyone admiring him, charisma pounding out of his thin, muscled body, sweet, even in the way he rejected you, impossible to ignore and/or dislike. “The world was precarious, Lotto had learned. People could be subtracted from it with swift bad math. If one might die at any moment, one must live!” This philosophy pushes Lotto onward into himself, into the Lotto we and everyone know him to be. He and Samuel find themselves in college together, where this cycle of Lotto sleeping around continues and expands. Chollie, Lotto’s friend from the summer of debauchery in Florida, also reunites with Lotto, sleeping in he and Samuel’s dormitory throughout college. During their last year of college, Lotto meets Mathilde, a figure of grace and mysterious beauty of which he had taken notice of before. He sees her, half-drunk, above a crowd of people at his feet, locks eyes with her across a party, and sprints to her, knowing. “Already he loved the laugh she held in her, which nobody else would see.” Lotto notices a joy, a loveliness, within Mathilde that she herself does not believe exists (in fact, as we will see later, Mathilde believes only evil lives deep within her). The first interaction the two of them have is Lotto proposing to her; he crawls to her across the floor, looks into her eyes, and asks: “will you marry me?” And Lotto believes her reply is “Yes, sure”- Mathilde lets him believe this their entire relationship (which turns out to be a marriage, an incredibly good one). The two elope after 5 weeks of knowing one another, not knowing much about the other- we do not get much of Mathilde’s perspective in the ‘Fates’ section of the novel (which is arguably the happier/more naive half of the story), but we do get small things, sentences that deliver a heaviness that surrounds Mathilde the way her demeanor surrounds her in college: “When she was small, isolated in the country, she’d been so lonely that she let a leech live on her inner thigh for a week.” The first year of their marriage is a cheap apartment, lack of work for Lotto (who at this point is struggling to become a successful actor), and endless parties with the group of friends from college, all of whom exchange rumors about the couple, expecting their inevitable collapse into one another and therefore away. Mathilde grows increasingly bothered by Lotto’s lack of ambition, and secretly, we find out later, pulls money and struggles to keep the couple afloat. Lotto’s inheritance and allowance from his mother stopped the day he married Mathilde, an element of the story we get more of later as well. Eventually the parties become less attended: “Up there rose the ghosts of parties, of themselves when they were younger, too dumb to understand that they were ecstatic.” One night, while drunk, Lotto writes a play, and it is then he finds his passion: writing. Mathilde takes on the role of manager/editor, secretly editing his plays after he has passed out from drink. We see Lotto’s success with his plays, the many different actors and theatre owners surrounding the couple like a fan club.“‘He’s so clownish on the surface. All joke and dazzle. How in the world could you have seen it?’ ‘But I did. The moment I met him. A fucking supernova. Every day since.’ She thought but did not say almost.” The two do have an astoundingly successful marriage despite the every day bullshit of not really knowing another human being in their entirety. The word ‘almost’ should follow everything we do in marriage. It should follow anything we think we know about the person we love. Lotto desperately wants children with Mathile, dreams of the way the kids will look and act, the way Mathilde will mother them. At every mention, however, Mathilde recoils. Amidst this success, Lotto becomes injured in an accident, nearly losing half of the movement in his body. This spell of brokenness leads to an intense depression, the like of which Mathilde herself is almost unable to break. It is finally an artist’s retreat that inspires Lotto, and the thought of meeting acclaimed Opera writer Leo. Lotto becomes increasingly transfixed with Leo, the two men sharing a relationship based on art, solitude, intrigue. The relationship with Leo almost usurps Lotto’s marriage (briefly), and only comes to a finish when Lotto does not like Leo’s composition for their joint Opera. Hurt Leo runs away, abandoning the artist’s retreat, and Lotto is forced to return to his marriage bed which he has left in an extremely irresponsible and selfish way. Toward the end of the Fates section, Groff takes us to an art gallery with Lotto and Mathilde. Lotto meets a man by the name of Ariel, who reveals to Lotto that he and Mathilde once had a relationship. Lotto, who naively believed that he was Mathilde’s first, becomes paranoid and heartbroken at the thought that his wife had an affair early on in the happiest days of their marriage. Finally, Lotto returns home to Florida after the death of Antoinette (his mother), estranged from his wife and utterly changed after the revelation of Mathilde’s lie. He speaks with Sallie, his aunt, about it and she replies: “Please. Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you’d crush them to paste. She never lied. Just never said.” And then Lotto’s own revelation: “Paradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely, you do know someone entirely.” The Fates section of the novel ends with Lotto looking out into the ocean, seeing a mirage of his younger self with his wife’s younger self, a beautiful last scene:
“Look, now. In the distance, a person. Closer, it’s two people, hand in hand, ankle deep in the froth. Sunrise in hair. Blond, green bikini; tall, shining. They kiss, handsy things happening under his trunks, her top. Who wouldn’t envy such youth, who wouldn’t grieve what has been lost, in watching. They come up to the dune, she pushing him backward, up. Study them from the balcony, holding your breath, while the couple stops in a smooth bowl of sand, protected by dunes. She pushes down his trunks; he takes off her bathing suit, top and bottom. Oh, yes, you’d return to your wife on hands and knees, crawl the distance of the Eastern Seaboard to feel her fingers once more in your hair. You’re unworthy of her. [Yes. [No.]] Even as you think of flight, you’re transfixed by the lovers, wouldn’t dare move for the fear of making them flap like birds into the blistered sky. They step into each other and it’s hard to tell where one begins and one ends: hands in hair and warmth on warmth, into the sand, her red knees raised, his body moving. It is time. Something odd happening though you are not ready for it; there is an overlap; you have seen this before, felt her breath on your nape, the heat of her beneath and the cold damp of day on your back, the helpless overwhelm, a sense of crossing, the sex reaching its culmination [come!]. Lip bitten to blood and finish with a roar and birds shoot up and crumbles in the pink folds of an ear. Serrated coin of sun on water. Face turned skyward: is this drizzle? [It is.] Sound of small shears closing. Barely time to register the staggering beauty, and here it is. The separation.”
I love Groff’s use of omniscient narration throughout the novel- she is unafraid to insert what she knows into the brackets- above, when she notes [Yes [No]], we see that the narrator understands what Lotto himself does not (or perhaps retrospective Lotto is coming to find out): all of marriage, all of committing to another, is paradox. Lotto cannot accept the bad, terribly bad, facts of marriage- for him, any negative, any unknown, breaches the goodness of their togetherness. The purity becomes tainted, and this somehow ruins, in a way, their love. In Furies, Mathilde’s section of the novel, we realize that this unequivocally perfect view of marriage is not one that she herself holds; for Mathilde, a person can both be perfect and incredibly flawed. You can at the same time know someone entirely and not know them at all. And the love is still there. The love is still undeniable.
Furies tells the story of Mathilde, the grieving widow, the small, lonely child, and the canniving, insecure woman she has been her entire life (while still being the elegantly smart and loving women Lotto knew her to be). The first few pages of the section show Mathilde and Chollie talking, and Chollie reveals that Gwennie, his twin who had been Lotto’s first, killed herself via an overdose. Like Mathilde, we will come to find out, Chollie hid the negatives from Lotto, neither of them wanting to damage the goodness he possessed. Mathilde folds in on her grief, denying old friends, denying Rachel, denying food. She thinks back to her childhood, to the girl named Aurelie growing up in a small French village. It is here that Mathilde may have been the happiest, the life before the guilt, before she deemed herself angry or evil, before she held furies within her. At four years old she pushed her infant brother down the stairs, breaking his neck and killing him. “She forgot the smell of the farmhouse where she’d been born, the crunch of gravel under her shoes, the perpetual twilight in the kitchen even when the lights were on. The wolf spun, settled in her chest, snored there.” Here begins Mathilde’s quest inward, into the evil she comes to believe she embodies. Her parents see it too, send her permanently away from them to live with her grandmother in Paris (a whore); here Mathilde becomes increasingly ‘demented,’ giving credence to the reputation fate has seemed to place upon her. She is sent away again, this time to an uncle in the USA, where she stays until college, and then Lotto. Whereas Lotto believed in possibility, in goodness, in complacent sureness, Mathilde knows better: “Even then, she knew that there is no such thing as sure. There is no absolute anything.” Mathilde loves Lotto because he is the first person who has looked at her since she was four and did not deem her mysteriously mean/menacing or beautiful but cold. He sees a goodness in her, a definite warmth, that she cannot see or feel within herself. “I love you beyond love.” “Even if she dreamt of him, she couldn’t have come up with him.” After the loss of Lotto, Mathilde becomes again the evil the world told her she had to be. “A force field of fury so thick nobody was going to get in.” Mathilde takes to sleeping with random men after Lotto’s death, recklessly finding strangers in bars, shops, on the street. We also learn that while Lotto was at the art retreat, Mathilde was incredibly unhappy, so dissatisfied in her marriage that she left, a sudden retreat to Thailand. She wanted Lotto to come home and find her gone, find the house a mess, worry, for the first time. She wanted him to realize all was not perfect. Instead, she got too burnt and came home early, arriving an hour before him. He did not realize her grief, her sadness, how much she needed him; instead, she was the one to pull him into her, giving and giving again to this man who was too good to realize any wrong. “How such small things can decide one’s fate.” Mathilde meets Ariel, an art gallery owner, at age 17. She is in desperate need of money for college tuition, and this man, a predator, offers her a way: endless sex for four years, until she graduates. Their arrangement is not terribly unhappy, but at times is incredibly degrading and filthy for Mathilde. It is because of him that she does not sleep with anyone else, why when she meets Lotto she must wait a few weeks until she is able to sleep with him. She moves away from her uncle, who notes: “I am curious to see how you change. I predict either something ferocious or something thoroughly bourgeois. You will be a world-eater or a mother of eight.” And Mathilde responds: “I won’t be a mother of eight.”
“Look at them together. The height of them, the shine on them. Her pale and wounded face, a face that had watched and never smiled now never stopped smiling. It was as if she lived all her life in the chilly shadows and someone had led her out into the sun.” Lotto never believed in Mathilde’s badness, and Mathilde did just as much for him: “she sharpened something that threatened to go diffuse in him.” “They could have lived on happiness alone.” It is at this point in the novel that we learn a deep secret: Chollie, Lotto’s best friend, knew of Mathilde’s arrangement with Ariel. It is because of Chollie that Ariel spoke to Lotto at the art gallery in Fates, toward the latter part of Lotto’s life. It is because of Chollie that Lotto knew of Ariel at all. Chollie had watched Mathilde and Ariel from afar back in college, and swore then to dismantle Mathilde at the very worst moment, to keep the secret until he knew it would hurt her the most- a fury, indeed. “[Grief is pain internalized, abscess of the soul. Anger is pain as energy, sudden explosion.]” Chollie tells Mathilde, ruthlessly, of what he has done, smiles at her shock and hurt. And Mathilde swears to injure Chollie as he has done her, swears it into the wolf sleeping in her chest, awakening the evil part of herself she has forgiven, has let rest, for decades. She hires a private investigator to take Chollie down in an unforgivable way, hoping to damage him as he has done her, as he did Lotto. Mathilde reveals two more deep, hidden secrets: her abortion of Lotto’s baby, in the early years of their marriage, and her subsequent decision to sterilize herself, also in the early years. It was not a decision she regretted, yet another factor that leads Mathilde to believe herself evil, to believe herself less than the loveliness Lotto asserts her to: “She would do it again. To save herself. She would do it again and again and again and again and again and again and again, if she had to.”
One man Mathilde sleeps with after Lotto’s death is a young actor, someone who adores and respects Lotto, who is clumsy in his introduction and unsure of what he wants from Mathilde. She takes him to bed, has a moment of acute attraction that she has not yet felt from the other men she’s slept with, and wakes up to his absence. He left a note for her, one she refuses to read for most of the novel. His tenderness, his face- they remind her of Lotto. When the boy leaves Mathilde recalls a memory of she and her husband star-gazing: “‘Did you know,’ he said, ‘they found out just a little while ago that there are billions of worlds that can support life in our galaxy alone?’ She felt a sting behind her eyes, but couldn’t say why this thought touched her. He saw clear through and understood. [He knew her; the things he didn’t know about her would sink an ocean liner; he knew her.] ‘We’re lonely down here, it’s true. But we’re not alone.'”
Mathilde thinks back to her first meeting of Lotto, regrets having made him a part of her darkness, adores having done so, too: “But she made a promise that he would never know the scope of her darkness, that she would never show him the evil that lived in her, that he would know of her only a great love and light. And she wanted to believe that their whole life together he did.” In the midst of these touching proclomations, these moments in which we want to hug Mathilde and tell her she is not the evil she and others have manifested within her, more secrets emerge, as if she is telling us ‘but wait, you don’t know it all yet, soon you will see…’ We discover that she and Antoinette, Lotto’s mother, kept in touch via letters, malicious letters on both ends, full of hate. Mathilde kept Lotto from her, relished in the shared secret hatred of the two women. And she relished in bringing Chollie down, too, enjoyed his wife leaving him, took glee in the multitude of things the investigator found. In a twist, Rachel and Sallie reveal to Mathilde that Antoinette too had hired a private investigator: for Mathilde herself. The biggest evils are missing from the file (Ariel, sterilization, the killing of her baby brother), but the largest surprise is not: a file on a human being, a face familiar to Mathilde- adoption papers for a Roland Satterwhite, mother Gwendolyn Watson, father Lancelot Satterwhite.
The last chapters of the novel include Mathilde imagining what happened between Gwennie and Lotto, and what happened after Gwennie found out she was pregnant. She envisions Antoinette offering her money to give the baby up for adoption, to never let her son know, a tactic she tried and failed at with Mathilde but which a naive 17 year old took, fatally. “The lives of others come together in fragments. A light shining off a separate story can illuminate what had remained dark. Brains are miraculous; humans storytelling creatures. The shards draw themselves together and make something whole.” After Lotto not knowing so much about Mathilde, it is now Mathilde who did not know Lotto. Mathilde finishes the file of the boy turned man, the one she recently had in her own bed, her deceased husband’s son he never knew. “Mathilde’s heart was a bitter one, vengeful and quick. [True.] Mathilde’s heart was a kindly one. [True.]” Upon her learning of Roland, she buries the hatchet in a way with Chollie- she writes him a letter, introducing Roland. The two share a future. “That’s not nothing,” Mathilde notes. It is not.
In the final chapters, Mathilde thinks back again to the moment that defined her life- her brother’s death. And she remembers a new detail: her cousin pushing her brother instead of her. A reality, that if it had been believed, would have changed everything. That would have made her believe in her worth, believe herself deserving of a love like Lotto’s. And yet, she had the love anyway:
“It was mathematical, marriage. Not, as one might expect, additional. It was exponential. This one man nervous in a suit a size too small for his long, lean self. This woman in a green lace dress cut to the upper thigh with a white rose behind her ear. Christ, so young. A shine in everyone’s eye. One could taste the love in the air. Or maybe that was the sex. Or maybe it was all the same then. ‘I do’ she said. ‘I do’ he said. They did; they would. Our children will be so fucking beautiful, he thought, looking at her. Home, she thought, looking at him. ‘You may kiss,’ said the officiant. They did; would.
Her life. In the window the parakeet. Scrap of blue midday in the London dusk. Ages away from what had been most deeply lived. Day on a rocky beach, creatures in the tide pool. All those ordinary afternoons, listening to footsteps in the beams of the house and knowing the feeling behind them. Because it’s true: more than the highlights, the bright events, it was in the small and the daily where she’d found life. The hundreds of times she’d dug in the soil of her garden, each time the satisfying chew of spade through soil. Or this: every day they woke in the same place, her husband waking her with a cup of coffee, the cream still swirling into the black. Almost unremarked upon, this kindness. He would kiss her on the crown of her head before leaving, and she’d feel something in her rising through her body to meet him. These silent intimacies made their marriage, not the ceremonies or the parties or opening nights or spectacular fucks. Anyway, that part was finished. A pity. Enough decades and a body slowly twists into one great cramp. But there was a time, once, when she had been sexy, and if not sexy, at least odd-looking enough to compel. Through this clear window, she could see how good it had all been. She had no regrets. [That’s not true, Mathilde; the whisper in her ear.] Oh, Christ. Yes, there was one. Solitary, gleaming. A regret. It was that, all her life, she had said no. From the beginning, she had let so few people in. That first night, his young face glowing up at hers in the black light, bodies beating the air around them, and inside her there was the unexpected sharp recognition; oh, this, a sudden peace arriving for her, she who hadn’t been at peace since she was so little. Out of nowhere. Out of this surprising night with its shatters of lightning in the stormy black campus outside, with the heat and song and sex and animal fear inside. He had seen her and made the leap and swum through the crowd and had taken her hand, this bright boy who was giving her a place to rest. He offered not only his whole laughing self, the past that built him and the warm beating body that moved her with its beauty and the future she felt compressed and waiting, but also the torch he carried before him in the dark, his understanding, dazzling, instant, that there was goodness at her core. With this gift came the bitter seed of regret, the unbridgeable gap between the Mathilde she was and the Mathilde he had seen her to be. A question, in the end, of vision. She wished she’d been the kind Mathilde, the good one. His idea of her. She would have looked smiling down at him; she would have heard beyond Marry Me to the world that spun behind the words. There would have been no pause, no hesitation. She would have laughed, touched his face for the first time. Felt his warmth in the palm of her hand. Yes, she would have said. Sure.”
She hadn’t said yes. She hadn’t said sure. And yet he had believed she did, despite. They had loved, really really loved, despite.