Friday, 3 March 2017

Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff

This is an interesting, complex book that seeks to unsettle and dissatisfy. It asks some pointed questions about what makes a good marriage, and does not necessarily come to the conclusions you think it might.

Two runs at the same story are not a bad way to go, but they often feel like they're looking for a gotcha around the midpoint or end of the book. In this case, the revelations that a second narrative look at some of the same events adds layers, but does not feel like it's there for shock value.

In the end, how much do we really know each other? How much do we need to know each other to have a good marriage? How much secrecy is acceptable? What if happiness comes even without full knowledge of some of the things that are going on (and therefore, lack of consent due to ignorance that consent would even be involved)?

My own personal answers for my own marriage would be very different from the ones that these characters find in this particular book. I would hesitate to extend that difference of opinion to the author - just because she's written this specific story about these specific people does not mean that they are truly representative of how she thinks about marriage, her own or others.

So, while I don't feel the need to know every one of my husband's thoughts, I feel like our marriage is built on a strong respect for each other, mutual sharing of decisions, and an ongoing conversation about anything at all in the world that started the day we got together and hasn't really stopped in any of the intervening years.

That would...not be the foundation of Lotto and Mathilde's marriage.  And yet, we don't quite know it the first time through, which gives the reader Lotto's interpretation of his marriage over many years, his failing career as an actor before he finds a lot of success as a playwright. He is always at the center of his own story, and as the one in the spotlight, the center of a lot of stories, or at least a featured player.

Mathilde, on the other hand, is in the background, and that's part because she has put herself there, and part because it's easy to ignore the less-famous wife of a celebrated man. Exactly how much of her experience is which is, I think, in flux throughout the book. She has poured her life and self into her husband and her husband's work, and that has given her some things she wanted and limited her at the same time.

The second go round, Grossman takes the story as Lotto understood it - their whirlwind romance, marriage, estrangement from his mother, lean years followed by acclaim - and adds how Mathilde understood it and her own role in it. And if Lotto accept acclaim gladly, Mathilde is never kind to herself.

Which puts the character in an interesting position. She certainly acts unilaterally, frequently making decisions and hiding them from everyone, including her husband. And yet, despite her almost constant belief that she herself is cruel, she is not only that. She's also capable of quite a lot of kindness, although it's never recognized. (And Lotto is capable of hurting people without realizing it, although that is almost as rarely recognized.) Neither has a monopoly on the moral high ground, although Mathilde knows that the decisions she makes are perhaps suspect.

And this is where it gets twisty. Given all that - small cruelties and kindnesses and secrets and obfuscation - is this still a marriage? Even, dare we suggest a good one? If both people within it find themselves and are mostly happy with their bargains, how do we judge? And perhaps most importantly, can you ever judge a marriage from the outside?

This isn't to say that everything done is forgivable, but how do you tally things up? In the end, I think this is why I enjoyed the book - there is never a moment of taking the easy way out, of making one a monster or the other the saint, or one the long-suffering one and the other the taker. The layers that are revealed as we see each interpretation of their lives together torn asunder by grief and loss, and that was perhaps even more powerful for me personally.

I am less sure than ever that I can know what goes on within the relationships of those around me, let alone make judgement calls. It seems like such a tricky path, building a life together. But I am very grateful my own marriage is nothing like this.

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