by Lauren Groff
This novel received a lot of buzz last year, and understanding that it’s about a marriage, I was keen to read it, being a married person myself.
In truth, though, it’s not about the sort of marriage that might be called typical, and for this reason, I didn’t find it relatable.
The marriage in question is between Lotto and Mathilde. The story opens with the very beginning of their marriage – both of them a mere 22 years old, not even graduated from college yet, and having only known each other for a matter of weeks. Lotto, heir to a bottled water fortune, is summarily disowned by his needy, increasingly agoraphobic mother, and he and Mathilde, an orphan, begin their married life living in a crummy basement apartment and barely scraping by. Nobody expects the marriage to last, but last it does – for over twenty years. Lotto begins the marriage with aspirations of being a successful – or at least working – actor, but that never pans out, and Mathilde’s resentment builds as she supports the two of them for several years on her own meager income. Eventually, Lotto gives up his acting dreams and begins writing plays – brilliant, critically acclaimed plays – and the couple moves up the social and economic ladder.
Behind all of this, though, are secrets. This is not a marriage, however successful and long-lived, built on honesty. The first half of the book (“Fates”) is narrated by Lotto, and the second half (“Furies”), by Mathilde. By Lotto’s account, Mathilde is goodness itself: beautiful, selfless, supportive, honest, loyal, forgiving, and possessing every other virtue you could think of. Lotto is vain, self-absorbed, narcissistic, and even childish – but generally a good guy and likeable. When we get to “Furies,” we learn that Mathilde is not what she appears to be, is not what her husband supposes her to be, and has loads of skeletons in her closet.
This novel was a little redolent of a Jonathan Franzen novel, but not as good. The writing is exceptional, and it’s an interesting plot, but the main problem for me was that I didn’t find any of the characters actually likeable. In fact, I found them all to be pretty disagreeable, and it’s hard to like a story in which there are no characters you feel an affinity for or feel like rooting for. Although a clever and well-imagined story, it wasn’t relatable for me and only marginally entertaining.