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Lotto loves Mathilde.

Or maybe he doesn’t: Lotto is a supreme narcissist, and he’s probably incapable of loving anyone but himself.

Mathilde loves Lotto.

Or maybe she doesn’t: Mathilde is so compartmentalized and damaged, she’s probably incapable of loving anyone. And she definitely does not love herself.

Fates and Furies is the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage.

And guess what? The marriage works.

But that’s not why Fates and Furies works.

Readers seem either to love Fates and Furies, or to want to smash it against a wall, hurl invective at it (pretentious, purple prose, meaningless phrases), almost as if these readers were disappointed lovers. It’s seldom one comes across a novel that elicits reactions that are this strong or this polarized. To me, this is proof of the magnitude of Lauren Groff’s accomplishment: She’s written something that’s so original, it’s controversial.

Yeah, yeah, the Roshomon twist is kind of the standard post-modern yawner. And how many novels are there about complicated marriages? Too many.

It’s not the plot of this novel that makes it so thrillingly good although certainly there is a mystery in the relationship between its two central characters that’s intriguing. Every self-help book you’ve ever snuck a peek at says these types of relationships are just wrong.

Groff’s singular writing is what makes this novel such a unique reading experience. I’d describe it as a kind of prose pointillism, a style that translates thoughts and actions into metaphors that serve as the literary equivalent of flashes of light, glancing and dancing from their original focus (Lotto, Mathilde) to illuminate everything in Groff’s frame of reference: landscape details, minor characters’ inner dialogues, minor characters’ ultimate fates, historical discursions. It’s a really original take on the omniscient narrator.

Groff’s style more than anything is what infuriates readers who don’t like the book. Hey! When they picked it up at Barnes & Noble, they thought they were picking up a big juicy roman á clef about modern marriage! And this novel has it all from graphic sex scenes (some of them kinky) to upward social trajectories to a big heart attack. Except that you can’t understand any of it without deliberate thought! Groff refuses to use the Subject*Verb*Object formula! (If I were a better writer myself, there’s a pun I could make here juxtaposing pointillism with pointless.)

Groff’s pointilist style is dazzling but also utilitarian. Fates and Furies spans a chronology of approximately 70 years, so Groff is writing about a retrospective future that must parallel the past without being too obvious. In that sense, Fates and Furies reminded me a bit of One Hundred Years of Solitude (full disclosure: I haven’t opened that novel for 30 years): There really is no story here until we read it.

A more obvious comparison is with Nabokov who had the same fascination with netting bright metaphors, with making puns, with using classical literature less as a template and more as an alternate timeline. Plot is as incidental to Groff as it was to Nabokov, so that while the theme of Fates and Furies – Marriage! Ain’t It Complicated? – is fairly simplistic, it can be difficult to determine what exactly is happening on any given page. The escapist pleasures of Fates and Furies are not the escapist pleasures of, say, a beach novel; they’re more about solving a puzzle whose clues are in those thousands of short, imagistic sentences. There’s an ostensibly random quality to those shimmering sentences, but really, they only make sense if you add them up in a certain way. The author’s way.

I loved Fates and Furies. But I’m not sure I would recommend it to anyone. It requires commitment. It requires an appreciation of the ways that the written word differs from movies and TV shows. Sadly, in the time of Netflix and Hulu, that appreciation is mostly lost.

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