Is There Such a Thing as the “Essential Nature” of a Person? A Book Review of Fates and Furies


Fates and Furies was the definition of an impulse buy. Two years ago, I was doing my Christmas shopping at the bookstore and, as I was checking out, saw a display of books on the counter. I had heard that Fates and Furies had been a finalist for the National Book Award; it popped up on a list of books read by Obama during his presidency; it was getting a moment in the spotlight as a best seller. “And this one,” I said, plopping Fates and Furies on top of my teetering pile of paperbacks. Pulling it from my shelf to read a week ago felt just as impulsive, but that’s appropriate – the book begins with an impulsive marriage between a college couple that has only known each other for two weeks. Lauren Groff’s novel tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage, first from the husband’s point of view then from the wife’s, in order to dramatically show how the same marriage can look so very different from their two perspectives. It is a contrast between Lotto thinking everything is exactly as it seems on the surface… and Mathilde knowing that it is not.

It’s hard to say that I really liked the book, although at times I didn’t want to put it down. Groff’s prose is described as “vibrant and original,” but I found it dull and convoluted. The point of view of the narrator occasionally changes from paragraph to paragraph without warning, and several times I had to stop and reread a section to figure out whose thoughts were on the page. Groff also includes long quotes from Lotto’s plays during sections of the book, which were difficult for me to get through.

The book is peppered with “truthy” asides in brackets in response to a statement or a question from the narrator. While reading, it seemed to be more quirky than necessary, but in retrospect it underlines the theme that stuck out to me the most: things are not always what they seem. We may have one “truth,” we may think we have a full conception of who a person is in their very core, but to someone else they are a different person and your truth is only a small part of their picture. [You could say Mathilde was two people in one character, four, five people – one for every person who saw her.]

In the first half of the book, Fates, Lotto’s history plays out through a series of startling events and sharp strokes of fortune that steer the course of his life. He doesn’t simply go to boarding school: he’s sent there by his mother as punishment for losing his virginity on top of a burning building with another “teenage delinquent” in full view of the firefighters. He doesn’t simply work through his depression and loneliness: he is startled out of stealing a gun by walking into the body of a classmate who has hanged himself. He does not simply meet a nice girl at college: he sees her surrounded by a halo of light at a party and drunkenly proposes to her on the spot without ever having spoken to her before. It seems miraculous that she not only agrees, but is an emotionally, financially, and domestically supportive spouse for decades of marriage. Even after marriage, he seems to waltz into success as a playwright. [A charmed life, not without sorrow, but moving along without serious effort or introspection on Lotto’s part.] It seems kind of inexplicable that beautiful, intelligent, patient Mathilde could be so in love with helpless and arrogant Lotto.

The second half of the book, Furies, turns Fates on its head. Mathilde, it turns out, is a master string-puller and has a dark and complicated past of which Lotto spends over twenty years blissfully unaware. Mathilde is an angry and vengeful person when it comes to her hurts, although very few people see a piece of that anger. Not only Mathilde, but nearly everyone around Lotto kept secrets and, in ways subtle or gross, manipulated the lives of others around them. [A nest of vipers who would turn on anyone except beloved Lotto.] Somehow lazy, whining Lotto comes out looking like a paragon of virtue.

The book is advertised as “the story of a marriage from two different points of view,” but it seems more like an extreme case example of the lesson that you can never truly know someone. They had been married for seventeen years; she lived in the deepest room in his heart. And sometimes that meant that wife occurred to him before Mathilde, helpmeet before herself. Abstraction of her before the visceral being.  It’s the closest Lotto comes to stopping to think about who Mathilde might really be. However, their friends are equally in the dark: each person sees Mathilde and Lotto clearly and has a concrete view of what they accurately are as individuals and as a couple. Perhaps the “true” Mathilde is really a composite of these many different views and no one – not even Mathilde herself – will ever see the whole. Depending on who looks at her, Mathilde is either described as stunning or as too skinny. There may be no real discerning between opinions on physical appearance, but it raises a symbolic mirror to the premise that no one person can ever completely understand the essential nature of another – even in marriage.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐

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