On marriage and truth: reviewing Fates and Furies

This weekend I read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.  I've actually had the book on reserve at the library for ages and it just happened to come in just in time for me to finish it right when President Obama named it as his favorite book of the year.  Lucky coincidence, I guess.   Anyway, President Obama's recommendation isn't the only accolade Fate and Furies received this year.  The novel, a New York Times Bestseller, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize and has been on numerous "Best of 2015" lists.

The first thing to say about the book is that Lauren Groff weaves an excellent story.  I was drawn in from the very first page and barely put the book down until I finished.  The narrative style was engaging and the story moved with purpose while developing fully formed characters.  I really enjoyed that side of the book.

On the other hand, I really disliked the characters.  The story centers on the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde.  The first half of the book really tells the story of the marriage from the point of view of Lotto.  The second half fills in the rest of the story from the point of view of Mathilde, often totally changing the meaning of various events.  By the end of the novel I simultaneously hated and sympathized with both husband and wife.

Lotto is self involved and pampered.  Born into privilege and allowed to do whatever he want, Lotto never develops any kind of drive or desire for anything.  Anything, that is, except love and admiration from everyone around him.  He believes himself to be a born actor but his talent is never noticed by others.  Eventually, largely through the manipulation and maneuvering of his wife, Lotto becomes an accomplished playwright. .Lotto is not an admirable character. He seems like a lazy slob who manages to attain some success, mostly because of his hard-working, long-suffering wife.

But then the second half of the book reveals a wholly different Mathilde.  We learn, as we plod through the second half, that Mathilde has a somewhat checkered past, none of which she has shared with Lotto.  We are given new details that change the meaning of various events of their marriage.  Whereas in the first half of the book Mathilde seems hard-working and long-suffering, by the end of the book she seems manipulative and mendacious.  

But here is my real problem with Fates and Furies, it has been called "a dazzling examination of a marriage."  The marriage of Lotto and Mathilde seems built almost entirely on sex and co-dependency.  Neither of them are remotely honest with the other so, in the end, you realize that can't have really loved each other because they never really knew each other.  The novel seems to portray good sex as the source of a good marriage, rather than a product of a good marriage (and that's all the sex talk, this isn't that kind of blog).

By the last page I just feel sorry for Lotto and Mathilde. I feel sorry for the ways they missed out on really being known because they didn't trust their partner with truth.  I feel sorry for the ways they missed out on true community because of the shallow people they surrounded themselves with.  Mostly, I just feel sorry for people who read this book and think they are reading a dazzling examination of a marriage.  I didn't feel dazzled by that marriage at all.

I still think Fates and Furies is worth reading, if only because of the ways it makes the reader think. But I don't think it's my favorite book of the year.  I'll ponder that and post a top 10 list later this week.