So it begins: a January/February/year spent reading all the books from last year’s best-of lists. Fates and Furies was on every list I saw, including President Obama’s, which then meant it was talked about all over again. So as I began to sink into this book, I started to think about what made it so special, what made it appear on all of those lists. It’s usually a difficult place for a book to be in, to begin with such high expectations. But Fates and Furies smashed it’s way through any expectations I had and blew me away. It deserves every accolade it’s gathered, and the many more it will undoubtedly receive.
What makes Fates and Furies so special is that Lauren Groff manages to write about so many things that are usually written so poorly, so well. It begins with the premise: the story of a marriage, from two sides. Part one is Fates - that of the husband, and part two is Furies - that of the wife. Groff writes of both sexes with poise and balance. At no point is one side belittled or passed judgement, yet neither central character is easily praised and Groff refuses to suffer fools gladly.
Lotto and Mathilde, the couple at the centre of this sweeping novel, are flawed characters, unlikeable in many ways. Unlike the truly awful Gone Girl which has somehow become the poster-child book for unlikeable characters, and even more unfortunately particularly for unlikeable female characters, with Groff’s touch I still ached for both Lotto and Mathilde. Yes they are horrible in many ways, but undeniably human in every respect.
The desire of Lotto and Mathilde to make new worlds for themselves is reminiscent of many books about the American dream, but Groff uses their drive to take to task the class implications of this dream. The privilege of white men, particularly the wealthy, is pulled apart and given an unrelenting examination. Lotto, sitting in bed one night:
He listened to his wife’s breath even into snores and wondered how he had arrived here. Drunk, lonely, stewing in his failure. Triumph had been assured. Somehow, he’d frittered his potential away. A sin. Thirty and still a nothing. Kills you slowly, failure. As Sallie would have said, he done been bled out.
Groff manages to pull off so many technical achievements in this novel it is dizzying. There’s the third-person observer who chimes in from time to time — always in brackets, always looking in, never connected to the plot yet somehow it just works. Like the line that follows this quote above: [Perhaps we love him more like this; humbled.] I often felt like these little notes and asides were Groff’s notes to herself while writing the novel yet they added something to the story so were left in. It added another dimension to the story without distracting from the narrative or pushing the reader into passing judgement unnecessarily.
There are also a number of references to classical literature, work that I’ve never read let alone understood, yet I never felt alienated by it, as I did with A Guide To Berlin. I think this great piece about the novel on Literary Hub sums this up:
Ambitious? Hell, yes. And thank the gods in whose temples Groff has grounded her literary pyrotechnics, because in doing so she reminds us that those old, old gods and ideas that underpin our received culture may have something to teach us—but they shouldn’t be allowed to pin us down.
But where Groff ultimately hits her highest notes are in the novel’s strongly routed feminist ideas. First of all, the sex in this book is written brilliantly. Almost every time I read sex scenes in novels I think of the Literary Review’s notorious Bad Sex Award and whether the text I’m reading is bad enough to make the list. But in Fates and Furies I could just sink into the writing and enjoy how it heightened both the narrative and the portraits of both central characters. I think the sex is well written because it never seeks to belittle either party, or try desperately to shock the reader, it is there to give the characters pleasure first and foremost, and then the reader. Because sex in this book is part of the marriage, not the whole marriage, as it is a part of the characters, yet not the whole character. As the narrator says late in the novel, ‘These silent intimacies made their marriage, not the ceremonies or parties or opening nights or occasions or spectacular fucks.’
Groff also makes a point of commenting on the unrealistic notions that are set for both men and women, but particularly women, in modern romance. As the narrator fiercely comments, ‘The story we are told of women is not this one.’
In the demotic, in the key of bougie, it’s the promise of love in old age for all the good girls of the world. … There would be long, hobbledy walks under the plane trees, stories told by a single sideways glance, one word sufficing. … The laughter, the beautiful reverberations. Then the bleary toddling on to an early-bird dinner, snoozing through a movie hand in hand. … Oh, companionship. Oh, romance. Oh, completion. Forgive her if she believed this would be the way it would go. She had been led to this conclusion by forces greater than she.
Yet despite the knowledge of the narrator, of the third-person voice and of Mathilde herself, ‘Somehow, despite her politics and smarts, she had become a wife, and wives, as we all know, are invisible. The midnight elves of marriage.’ I don’t want to give anything away by saying any more about the plot of the novel, but the ways in which Groff pulls her characters in conflicting directions yet manages to maintain their vulnerability, their drive and their humanity throughout, is breathtaking. I read Fates and Furies in the break between Christmas and New Year’s and it was the perfect novel to sink into on cold days, just as it would be laying on the beach at home. It is page-turning and maintains it’s feeling of being immediate despite its length of close to 400 pages. Rather than becoming a novel that the reader grows to fear or become resentful of over it’s length, I couldn’t read this fast enough, yet I stopped myself in order to savour every word.
This is a masterful novel. One that, I’m sure, will be important for years to come. It taught me so much about what is possible in a novel both as a writer and as a reader, but it also taught me so much about what is possible as a woman, both in and out of relationships. Fates and Furies will undeniably be one of the great works of feminist literature, but should also equally be considered as one of the great novels of contemporary literature.
Because I read this book over the Christmas/New Year’s period which we all know basically runs on alcohol, and because as I write this it’s snowing outside and I have zero desire to either cook or leave the house, here’s a cocktail. There is a period in Fates and Furies where Mathilde finds herself regularly drinking wine as her dinner and it just seemed like the perfect description of what she was going through, so in her honour I’m having gin for lunch. This recipe for Gin and Camomile Tea Cocktail is based on this one from DesignLoveFest which uses whiskey, which would be perfect for the current weather but I’m a much bigger fan of gin and this one has a hat, so the choice was easy. I kept the tea a little warm because of the weather, but over ice in summer would be completely wonderful. Apparently tea makes for a perfect cocktail base — I’d love to try this earl grey version another time, and if you’re ever in Berlin this bar in Neukölln makes their own infused spirits often using tea which gave me the idea of making this lazy-person’s version at home. Recently I had a night home by myself where at one point I stopped and released that I was living so many of my fantasies of being an adult: I was watching a movie in my pyjamas, whilst drinking a Negroni and eating lollies, knowing that as soon as the film finished I’d go to bed and read as late as I wanted/was physically able. What a dream being an adult is sometimes! It’s been important for me to recognise this in the last few weeks because sometimes being an adult is also making big, difficult decisions, and that’s what I’ve been doing lately. So at least on the upside you can basically pour gin into tea and make in sound fancy, right? Fates and Furies reminds us that being an adult is full of difficult decisions, compromises and pain. So let’s remind ourselves of the good stuff from time to time too. Cheers.
On Literary Hub’s list of Top Literary Stories of the Year, their number one item was the ‘series of explosive essays [which] took the (white male dominated) publishing industry to task for its still shockingly prevalent prejudices.’ The top five items featured the brilliant piece by Claire Vaye Watkins which I posted with The Folded Clock, ‘On Pandering’, but also two brilliant pieces by Rebecca Solnit on the hypermasculine canon in ’80 Books No Woman Should Read’ and on literary mansplainers in ‘Men Explain Lolita To Me’. Both pieces are excellent, unflinching and necessary.