Flipping the literary script by changing perspective mid-novel from a husband to a wife is officially a trend across genres. Let’s call it the “marriage-switch” novel, a cousin to the “sister-switch” or “best-friend-switch” novel that pulls off the same maneuver with two women. In Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer-winning March, the adventurous tale of her hero, Little Women‘s absent father gone to fight for the abolitionist cause, is undercut by a long section from his suffering wife’s perspective, once she arrives at a war hospital to nurse him. Bestselling thriller Gone Girl, of course, changes narration from the hapless douchebag, Nick, to spend time with his conniving (and missing) wife, Amy. From her, we learn not only the truth of the crime, but also a more essential truth of their marriage.
And now lauded novelist and short story writer Lauren Groff brings us Fates and Furies, an incredibly ambitious, teeming look at the life of a marriage, and the lives of the two people who make up that union. It’s being compared to Gone Girl all over the place, and with reason. Blithe scion of wealth and artistic soul Lancelot (Lotto) and his tall, beautiful, steady-seeming wife Mathilde each own half of Groff’s novel, via close third-person narration. Lotto’s section is like him; passive, dreamlike, sad, charming, playful, and open. Mathilde’s (that would be “Furies”) is more like her, which is to say, shrewder, far more keenly aware, and anything but naive.
They meet by chance (or was it?) at a party at their artsy college, over a joke proposal that they each remember differently. They fall madly in love within days, are married within weeks, and stay together for years, enduring lean times after Lotto is disinherited and struggles to break through as an actor. They maintain their union through an eventual period of playwriting success for Lotto that brings them glamour, renown. Lotto adores Mathilde; he counts on her to hustle up his friends and work some magic when he’s in one of his many depressive troughs. He needs her to show a kind of steadfast belief in him, a faith he needs as he needs food.
When Mathilde’s turn to take over the narrative arrives, it’s not a moment too soon. For the reader, Lotto’s relative passivity has worn thin. With Mathilde’s entrance, her real entrance, we don’t just get a new look at her character, forged by her (terrifyingly) brutal life before Lotto. Instead, we see a piece-by-piece deconstruction of all that’s come before. Almost every moment Lotto thought was simply fate turns out to have been a far more complicated machination; fury, manipulation, the grunt work of calculation. Mathilde has made such gargantuan efforts not only to please her husband, but to remake herself the saintly image he has created of her.
What’s interesting about Mathilde’s section is not what it reveals about Lotto (we already knew he was sort of a charismatic cipher), but what it reveals about her. Her husband didn’t just look at her through rose-colored glasses; he was possibly totally blinded by the light she reflected back at him. “Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband,” writes Groff in an already oft-quoted passage. “What she did not tell him balanced neatly with what she did. Still, there are untruths made of words and untruths made of silences, and Mathilde had only ever lied to Lotto in what she never said.”
The idea here is that the “secrets” of a marriage are not just the things we hide from a partner to protect them, or to protect the family. They’re also about burying, or cordoning off, the worst aspects of ourselves. This premise, that one can present an entirely false self to one’s lover for decades, requires a certain kind of naiveté on the lover’s part — a quality which Lotto happens to have, in almost unbelievable quantities.
There’s an element of fantasy to this novel of intimacy, or at least the kind of high classical drama Groff frequently and directly alludes to throughout a text that is as rich and dense; her writing has been called “dazzling,” which is code for prose that many might find overwritten. But that element of myth, of fantasy, makes the novel’s second half all the more jaw-dropping, like (to use a classical metaphor) watching a beautiful tapestry unspooled in a fit of divine rage. It’s also very much preoccupied, like Gone Girl and March, with gender: the invisible work done by women in the service of male genius, the scars of abuse and objectification that many women must hide, the invisible burdens they take on to make their jobs as wives and mothers and girlfriends look easy.
Groff accomplishes real feminist work on the back of an unlikable but mesmerizing character; this is impressive. Unquestionably, Fates and Furies is a tour de force, a culmination of the marriage-switch novel mini-genre which reminds us that no objective truth can be found even in fiction, and that every relationship, every event, and every family takes on a different aspect depending on who our guide is. Fair, and even profound, but I remain at least as intrigued by literature that asks the more pedestrian question: What happens when human beings already know each other’s worst behaviors, worst attributes, biggest weaknesses, darkest secrets, and make the choice to love each other anyway?