"Paradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely; you do know someone entirely," Lauren Groff writes in her splendid new novel Fates and Furies.
The marriage at the center of the book illustrates both halves of that paradox, in all its glory and heartbreak. We meet a young couple, Lotto and Mathilde, in the book's first pages, on the day they marry, two weeks after they meet. How they come to know each other entirely fills the novel's first half; how much they don't know is stunningly revealed in the second.
Groff's previous novels, The Monsters of Templeton (2008) and Arcadia (2012), were impressive, but Fates and Furies takes a leap into unforgettable territory. It's a swoony love story, a complex mystery, a modern fairy tale, a comedy of manners, a dark and shocking revenge drama, all expertly interwoven and told in prose so lyrical and lovely that its sentences can sweep you off your feet.
Fates and Furies is a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for fiction, and when the awards ceremony takes place Wednesday night (see infobox on this page) I'll be rooting for it to win, not just because Groff lives in Gainesville and some of the book is set in Florida, but because it's one terrific novel.
Lotto is born Lancelot. His parents are Antoinette, a former Weeki Wachee mermaid and Disney World princess with long red-gold hair and "switchback curves," and Gawain Satterwhite, a lonesome but canny Cracker who makes a fortune by bottling the spring water on his family's rural land: "Selling Florida's birthright back to its owners was borderline immoral, perhaps, but the American way to make money."
Born in the midst of a hurricane and delivered by his Aunt Sallie, Gawain's sister, Lotto has an indulged and idyllic childhood, the golden boy at his family's center. His father's sudden death when Lotto is 13 changes everything. Muvva, as he calls Antoinette, is pregnant when Gawain dies. After her daughter, Rachel, is born, Muvva sells the family homestead, buys a modest house on the ocean on Florida's east coast and socks away the rest of the money for her kids.
Lotto's dramatic birth is a key to his personality. At 15 he loses his virginity on the roof of a burning house; when he goes off to college, he is inexorably drawn to the theater department. Tall and gangling and not exactly handsome but radiantly charming, he finds success there. He and Mathilde first connect as she enters a party celebrating his triumphant performance in the title role of Hamlet during their senior year.
As soon as he sees Mathilde — 6 feet tall, white-blond hair, the kind of unusual but striking looks that have let her work her way through college as a model — he fights through a dancing throng to fall on his knees at her feet and say, "Marry me!"
Lotto's own fairy-tale backstory makes it easy for him to accept hers, a sadder tale of an orphaned childhood. He'll sweep her into his glamorous orbit and she will be dazzled, even though Muvva — devoted to her boy but furious when defied — will refuse to meet her son's wife and cuts them off without a penny when she learns of the precipitous marriage.
It doesn't matter, at least at first. Mathilde will work a series of jobs, at an art gallery, an Internet startup, while Lotto earnestly pursues acting roles. They live in an adorable little apartment in New York City, where Groff charts the first years of their marriage by surfing us from one holiday or celebration to the next. Lotto, who was epically promiscuous in college, is utterly faithful but no less voracious about sex, with Mathilde just as enthusiastic. The only empty space in their beautiful life: no babies, although Lotto wants kids desperately.
By the time they're 30, it's clear his acting career is going nowhere. Fearful of losing Mathilde — "Her hot faith had cooled" — he sits down after a drunken New Year's Eve party and writes a play.
Once again, everything changes. The first play is a hit, and others flow from him like the water from that family spring. There is a decade and more of fame, money, artistic collaboration, a house in the country in a cherry orchard. There are dark spots: Lotto's idea of working with a talented young composer goes awry in strange ways; at a seminar, he makes an offhand remark that explodes into a kerfuffle about sexism. Muvva still lives in that beach house, never leaving it now, growing hugely fat in her unforgiving rage, as Sallie and Rachel regularly report.
But Lotto and Mathilde still love each other, more deeply given what they've weathered.
And then, catastrophe.
There's little to say about the second half of the book that would not give away its fusillade of startling revelations, about Mathilde — "Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband. What she did not tell him balanced neatly with what she did." — and about almost everyone else. Its portrait of grief is keenly observed and as powerful as a body blow; its plotting is breathtaking.
And it all comes around, finally, to the truth about that marriage, despite what Lotto and Mathilde knew and did not know:
"Or this: every day they woke in the same place, her husband waking her up 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 parties or opening nights or occasions or spectacular f---s.
"Anyway, that part was finished."
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.