Even from her impossibly high starting point, Lauren Groff just keeps getting better and better. Her debut novel, “The Monsters of Templeton” (2008); her stirring story collection, “Delicate Edible Birds” (2010); and my favorite book of 2012, “Arcadia ” — all demonstrated her exquisite style and tough, heartbreaking compassion. But her new novel, “Fates and Furies,” is a clear-the-ground triumph. Spanning decades, oceans and the whole economic scale from indigence to opulence, this novel holds within its grasp the story of one extraordinary marriage. Not yet 40, Groff nonetheless captures the complicated ways love blesses, transforms and, yes, deceives us over many years.
The novel’s title reflects its two-part structure. The first half concocts the whole blessed life of Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite. Born “in the calm eye of a hurricane” — lucky from the start — Lotto is the adored son of a wealthy Florida family. “Loud and full of light,” he waxes strong in spirit, a young man people either adore or resent — sometimes simultaneously.
He’s an actor, of course, first in boarding school and then at Yale, where everybody agrees that his “Hamlet” is transcendent. “He was aware of how he appeared at every angle in the room,” Groff writes in prose that seems to sigh with both adoration and exasperation. There’s a touch of F. Scott Fitzgerald in this glamorous story of a dazzling man, so rich, so likable, so desperate to give and receive affection. Dogged by depression, subject to waves of self-pity, to stay confident he requires constant affirmation, which any number of friends — especially women — are eager to provide.
But this is the story of a marriage, of two people who transformed themselves and each other, and it begins, as any storybook romance should, across a crowded room. “In the doorway, suddenly, her,” Groff writes, channeling the vision of Mathilde Yoder that Lotto will shape and retell for decades. “He loved her first for the stun of her across this thump and dance. . . . Beauty like hers cast glimmers on the walls even across campus, phosphorescence on the things she touched.” Shirtless and glistening, he swims through the crowd, falls to his knees and shouts up at her, “Marry me!”
It’s an absurd and delightful scene, ripe with Lotto’s bravado, and it launches their legendary marriage just a few weeks later: The big-hearted playboy settles down for good with the unattainable virgin. And everyone can see that they’re perfect for each other. “It was as if she’d lived all her life in the chilly shadows and someone had led her out into the sun,” Groff writes. “And look at him. All his restless energy focused tightly on her. She sharpened something that threatened to go diffuse in him.” So what if Lotto’s rich mother cuts him off? So what if he can’t get any work beyond a few bit parts? It’s only a matter of time before Broadway recognizes him, right? And till then, Lotto and Mathilde can live off their love.
This insightful portrayal of a marriage is even more complex than it first appears. Groff has a subtle ear for the way personalities interact in love, especially when the distribution of talent and effort is uneven, as it always must be. Mathilde, so long impoverished and alone, willingly takes on the chore of encouraging a self-absorbed, quick-to-despair young man whose brilliance she doesn’t entirely believe. And Lotto can be infuriatingly obtuse about his status, about the invisible lines of privilege that keep him suspended above the trials ordinary people endure.
What makes this so endlessly engaging is the way Groff plays the vibrant tones of love, devotion and annoyance that compose any real marriage. Her flexible style can grow impressionistic enough to convey the high points of passing years or lush enough to embody Lotto’s melodramatic sense of himself. And there are those moments, just pinpricks of irritation, when Mathilde’s tightly repressed anger leaks through and we get a sense of what it’s like to live with a theater person — in success or failure — addicted to hits of fresh praise.
This would have been plenty, more than enough to recommend “Fates and Furies” as a wry critique of the golden-boy saga, but halfway through, Groff leverages her story in a remarkable and transformative way: Turning from “Fates” to “Furies,” she presents Mathilde’s life unmediated by Lotto’s idealized vision of her. Not only do we finally learn the details of her dark history, but the novel deconstructs and reimagines the founding myths of their marriage. Groff reenacts whole scenes from Mathilde’s point of view — not just a change of perspective, but a shift in the light’s frequency that brings out details we couldn’t perceive before. Here we see what it costs her to live with Lotto and what she gets in return, how it feels to have her stories, her efforts, her talents appropriated so unconsciously by his voracious ego. “You’re back in the shadows, hiding there,” a presumptuous but discerning young actor tells her. “You’re the interesting one.”
Those furies in the title come roaring to life in this second half, inflected with the rage of the Greek tragedies that Lotto toys with but Mathilde grasps in her tigress paws. She’s as determined as Antigone, as ferocious as Medea: Cross her — or the man she loves — and she’ll crush you.
Pay close attention: Developments that seem irrelevant or vaguely implausible in the first half of the novel are blazingly revelatory in the second. Even before you reach the end of “Fates and Furies,” you’ll start flipping back and rereading; the novel’s later developments irradiate those earlier scenes. And if these disclosures and reversals pile on a bit too thick, they make for a vertiginous ride that will shake your confidence in what you think you know about your spouse — and yourself.
Groff is too sophisticated to regard the wife’s perspective as the “true” one; Mathilde’s experience is distorted by its own, different myths. But by the time we’re led back to her “rosebud” moment, we understand more fully than ever before the way a life can be circumscribed and bent by the contours of others’ cruelty.
Swelling with a contrapuntal symphony of passions, “Fates and Furies” is that daring novel that seems to reach too high — and then somehow, miraculously, exceeds its own ambitions.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On Sept. 21 at 6:30 p.m., Lauren Groff will be in conversation with NPR arts correspondent Lynn Neary at Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St. NW, Washington.
By Lauren Groff
Riverhead. 390 pp. $27.95