Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is the story of a marriage. Groff is admittedly ambivalent about the institution*, yet she renders both her husband and wife as better people because of their union. I think that one of the most intriguing assertions in the book is that we each have our own versions of reality; even when living in such an intimate relationship, each partner lives a very separate life. Lotto (Launcelot) whose story is told in the first half of the book, believes his wife, Mathilde to be saintly. He also believes in himself unquestioningly, a beloved and entitled son of a moneyed family. From struggling actor post graduation from Vassar where he wowed audiences with his overplayed Hamlet and met mysterious, friendless Mathilde, to his zenith as a brilliant playwright. When we read Mathilde’s story, we get a very different view of Lotto, and also learn that as fated by birth as Lotto is, Mathilde often acts with a fury born of a single life-altering event from her early childhood. Groff questions the reliability of memory and the tragic consequences of holding a belief that may be entirely wrong. Intriguing themes and stellar writing would make Fates and Furies my favorite book of 2015 if I had to choose one.
Because my work involves constantly reading about the newest books and adding them to my reading list, it’s not often that I read something older, but I was curious to see if Groff’s earlier work was as wonderful at her latest. So I read Arcadia, the story of Ridley whose nickname, Bit sticks with him from the time he is an undersized baby born in a Hippie commune in the 1960s. The story begins with Bit as a five-year-old describing a Utopian version of Arcadia where he is a member of the kid herd and family lines are blurred. The cult’s leader is, unsurprisingly, a charismatic narcissist. Handy has several wives and multiple children whom he ignores and travels with his band of musicians and puppeteers while the community transform a rundown mansion into a home for the hundred plus residents who cultivate organic veggies, practice midwifery, run a bakery, and grow and sell marijuana. Groff’s writing is so sensual and completely imagined, it’s hard to believe she didn’t live in this commune. Next we visit Bit as an adolescent, painfully in love with Handy’s daughter, a promiscuous free spirit bound to break his heart. Bit is becoming disillusioned with life in Arcadia with its swelling population of squatters, trippies, and runaways. In the final section, Bit is in his thirties with his own daughter and a job as a university professor. His difficulty fitting into the larger world shapes his life as it does others raised as the kid herd and as they live their lives in the bigger world, their shared experience ties them to one another like any family. Yes, Arcadia was as wonderful as Fates and Furies.
I have just placed holds on Groff’s 2008 novel, The Monsters of Templeton, and her short stories, Delicate Edible Birds and Other Stories. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Tin House,One Story, McSweeney’s, and Ploughshares, and in the anthologies 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and three editions of the Best American Short Stories. She has been nominated for the National Book Award.
*From an interview on NPR: http://www.npr.org/2015/10/27/451928229/lauren-groff-used-fates-and-furies-to-bring-feminine-rage-into-light