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'Fates And Furies' Offers A Tour-De-Force Plot, Minus Compelling Characters


This is FRESH AIR. Lauren Groff is a young writer who's already garnered serious acclaim for her novels, "The Monsters Of Templeton" and "Arcadia." Her third novel, "Fates And Furies," has just been published, and book critic Maureen Corrigan has more words of praise for Groff's writing, with some qualification. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Biographers of Charles Dickens tell us that even though his novels were published monthly, occasionally even weekly in serial form, he would customarily work out their sprawling plots in his mind well in advance, sometimes making diagrams on great swathes of paper. I imagine that Lauren Groff, like Dickens, must have begun her new novel, "Fates And Furies," by mentally mapping out an aerial view of its zigzagging, unflagging tour de force of a plot. For a medium-sized novel that focuses in tightly on two characters and their over-20-year marriage, "Fates And Furies" vacuum packs so many complex narratives between its covers that you feel like you're reading one of those plot-heavy Victorian door stoppers. And not only does Groff tell a multitude of stories, but she does so through a variety of genres. What starts off as a fairly realistic novel about domestic life digresses into chapters that read like plays and eventually morphs into a dark fairy tale that also borrows heavily from the conventions of the classic psychological suspense story. Wow. Despite the reservation I have about "Fates And Furies" - and more on that later - it is a marvel of language and design.

The two main characters here are called Lotto, short for Lancelot, and Mathilde. They meet at Vassar in 1991. She's a solitary scholarship student, tall and fair, possessed of a somewhat offbeat beauty. He's a budding actor, charismatic and rich. They impulsively marry within a couple of weeks. Here are some of Lotto's happy, lusty thoughts about the future while he's on his honeymoon with Mathilde, consummating their marriage on a cold beach in Maine.

(Reading) He imagined a lifetime of making love on the beach until they were one of those ancient pairs speed-walking in the morning, skin like lacquered walnut meat. Even old, he would waltz Mathilde into the dunes and have his way with her sexy, frail bird bones, the plastic hips, the bionic knee - this for eternity. Between his skin and hers, there was the smallest of spaces, barely enough for air, for the slick of sweat, now chilling. Even still, a third person, their marriage, had slid in.

Clearly, Groff turns a phrase as deftly as she twists and turns her plot. "Fates And Furies" is alive with wit, with language capable of shifting in the space of a sentence from the snappy to the tragic. The first half of the novel, called "Fates," is told primarily from Lotto's perspective. It traces his marriage to Mathilde through its early years, when they survived paycheck-to-paycheck in a basement apartment in New York City, to Lotto's rise to international prominence as a playwright, to - well, let's stop there. The second half, "Furies," is Mathilde's version of events, in which the scaffolding of their life story that Lotto has securely fixed in the reader's mind is dismantled, nuts, beams and bolts, until all that remains is rubble.

Ingenious, but my reservation about "Fates And Furies" derives from this fact - Groff basically has written a two-character story, and within a day of finishing this novel, I had trouble remembering those two characters' names. That's because Lotto and Mathilde are more like necessary devices rather than fully realized characters whose lives invite connection and concern. As engrossed as I was in the elaborate, clashing tales of their marriage, I didn't find myself caring at all about them or believing in them, for that matter. Granted, not every novel needs to be character-driven to be worth reading, and there are plenty of other reasons to read and admire "Fates And Furies." It's just that without the presence of compelling characters at its core, Groff's novel ends up being an austere, architectural achievement. There are certainly worse things for a novel to be, but there are also better.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Fates And Furies" by Lauren Groff. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


H. RAP BROWN: We stand on the eve of a black revolution, brothers.

GROSS: ...I'll talk with director Stanley Nelson about his new documentary, "The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution." It chronicles the rise of the Black Panthers in the 1960 and includes interviews with former Panthers as well as police officers who were in confrontations with them and an FBI agent who infiltrated the group. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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