0ne of the lessons I’ve been working on teaching my students is that readers look for and explore nuance. It’s easy for them (and the rest of us!) to make quick judgements of characters (and people!) with generalized language: she’s a good person, he’s a bad person, etc. I’m trying to get them to hold multiple ideas about a character in their mind at once, to consider multiple causes of behaviors, to consider other perspectives.
I got to put this concept to work while reading Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which was marketed as a book about marriage and tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde who met and married during the final weeks of college. Divided into two parts, Fates focuses on Lotto’s story and Furies on Mathilde’s; crossing over from one to the next reveals new details and backstories to what happened in the first half. After discussing with my book club, we thought that a better description would be it’s a story of a marriage, but it is more a story about the degree to which we allow ourselves to be known, and to which we pursue truly knowing those closest to us.
The women in my book club all came from the perspective that marriage (and best friendship) is a place where we wanted to be truly known and truly loved, though we concluded that it’s impossible to know a person completely. What made this book so interesting was that Lotto and Mathilde were looking for very different things in their marriage: Lotto needed a muse and someone to take care of him; Mathilde needed security. Neither of them seemed to want to be fully known, or somehow didn’t consider it as an option.
One of the more interesting lines in the book for me was “He knew her; the things he didn’t know about her would sink an ocean liner; he knew her,” (page 331). This line was narrated not by Lotto, but by an unnamed narrator who occasionally commented on the events in the story, which is significant because it shows that Lotto himself wasn’t cognizant of how much he didn’t know about her. Mathilde, however, was keenly aware.
The other fascinating part of the story is the thread Groff spins through that most other people were constantly looking at Lotto and Mathilde from the outside and thinking it was the epitome of the best kind of marriage. And perhaps for the intents and purposes of Lotto and Mathilde, it was, but there was another moment I thought really compelling that adds a layer to consider:
During a Christmas that was emotionally wrought for the characters, Groff spent a significant number of pages writing an account that a stranger passing by on the street saw through the window “a circle of singing people bathed in the clean white light from a tree, and his heart did a somersault, and the image stayed with him; it merged with him even as he came home to his own children…All those years, the singers in the soft light in the basement apartment crystallized in his mind, because the very idea of what happiness should look like,” (page 75). Mathilde and Lotto didn’t truly know one another, their friends didn’t truly know them, and this scene extends the idea that we so easily misinterpret the world around us. It’s a lonely idea. (And it got metacognitive when we, as readers, realized the misinterpretations we made about Mathilde before we knew her story that came in the second half of the book.)
What I walked away from book club thinking the most about was how one of my friends called their relationship the opposite of what Brene Brown writes about in her books–that opening ourselves to vulnerability is what allows us to live wholeheartedly. A lot of our conversation circled around the compassion for the characters we felt as we learned more about them, and the frustration and sadness we had for them as we watched them keep an arm’s length–which may feel safer and more secure, but in the long run ends in loneliness.
So–is this book worth the hype? I think so. The more I think about it the more I want to discuss it and what it says about relationships and about gender. I didn’t get into it here and don’t want to spoil some plot lines, but learned that both Lotto and Mathilde were crafted to combat some gender stereotyping in literature, which is always interesting food for thought.