Fates and Furies

“Like that, all at once, Mathilde grew up over Aurelie’s skin.”

That sentence pretty much summed up Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies for me. It’s a book highly concerned with facade, which is often portrayed by the characters’ skin — the metaphorical skin Mathilde grows over her childhood self, and even the actual skin on Lotto’s face, which evolves from an acne-ridden liability in adolescence to an asset as a college playboy actor.

Another force at play is expectations: creating them, subverting them, negotiating with them as reality strikes. There’s the playwright Lotto seeks out for an artistic collaboration who doesn’t match with who he was expecting, nor does the result of their collaboration. There’s the private investigator of many literal disguises. There’s the childhood friend conning his way through college. Even “Furies” as a whole, the entire second half dedicated to Mathilde’s perspective, acts as an upending foil to what “Fates” establishes with Lotto’s narrative.

There’s a short, tangential paragraph that illustrates this well. It concludes a scene in Lotto and Mathilde’s dingy apartment with them and Lotto’s aunt Sallie and little sister singing “Jingle Bells” on Christmas around the tree. A stranger walks by and sees this scene and “his heart did a somersault, and the image stayed with him.” Groff gives this paragraph to an anonymous man completely unrelated to the story, for whom this small image within our narrative was a flashbulb moment that stayed with him throughout his life: “All those years, the singers in the soft light in the basement apartment crystallized in his mind, became the very idea of what happiness should look like.”

Except that scene was not what it seemed from outside. The group was discussing Lotto’s turbulent family situation with a sour tension that usually accompanies such discussions, and Lotto started up “Jingle Bells” to shoo away the dark thoughts it had conjured — to “sing in the face of dismay.” Mathilde boiling with resentment, Sallie rehashing regretful memories, they joined in the song too in spite of themselves, forming a portrait a man outside their window would drastically reinterpret for the rest of his life. Indeed, appearances can be deceiving.

Probably my favorite aspect of the book is Groff’s writing style. It’s a muscular but fragmentary syntax, as if it were a choppy sea — not unlike the book’s cover illustration — rolling Mathilde and Lotto along, barely keeping them afloat. It’ll put off some readers, but I’m a fan. It reminded me of Annie Proulx’s style in The Shipping News, which nixed sentence subjects altogether. (Certainly not every unorthodox style works for me: Rob Bell’s “give every sentence its own paragraph” arrangement, for example, grates me to no end.)

I’d heard from the general buzz around the book that the two parts were different perspectives on the same story, and that a major twist drops in the second part, a la Gone Girl. But it didn’t feel that way at all. “Furies” is more like a slow twist, unrolling gradually to reveal the darker side of their marital orbit. For that reason I think I like “Furies” more than “Fates”, which is the opposite of the consensus I’ve heard from others. Lauren Miller at Slate is right, though, that “Fates” published alone would have felt slight, just as “Furies” published alone would have seemed farcical.

The book is greater than the sum of its parts, so all the plaudits thus far make sense. I don’t read enough fiction to fairly compare it to anything else, so I’ll just say I dug it and you might too.