Friday, 5 February 2016

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff



published 2015



Fates and Furies


Outside, a thickness of night. Streetlights were lollipops of bright snow…

The Buddha laughed in silence from the mantelpiece. Around him, a lushness of poinsettias. Below, a fire Lotto had dared to make out of sticks collected from the park. Later, there would be a chimney fire, a sound of wind like a rushing freight train, and the trucks arriving in the night.

Mathilde came back in the door, carrying a tray. Glorious in her silver dress, her hair platinum, in a Hitchcock twist: she’d gotten fancy since she’d been promoted six months earlier. Lotto wanted to take her into the bedroom and engage in some vigorous frustration abatement. Save me, he mouthed, but his wife wasn’t paying attention…

She turned off the chandelier so the Christmas tree with its lights and glass icicles overcame the room, and he pulled her onto his lap. “Breathe,” Lotto said softly into his wife’s hair.

 
commentary: The most talked-about book of 2015? The claim has been made for this book, but I think it’s most certainly not true in the UK, and I’m not sure in general – surely A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was more the focus of literary chitchat? (I explain here why I hated A Little Life.)

There are faint similarities between the books – one of the paras I wrote about Life absolutely stands for this one too, every word of it:
The writing and story are certainly compelling in a weird way, but the style is also very workmanlike, nothing special, and is done in that strange manner peculiar to modern US novels where everything is written as history: first this happened, then this happened, then they went uptown, then it was Thanksgiving. It is quite a distancing way of writing.
The structure of the book is clear: it tells the story of the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde over more than 20 years, with looks back at their childhoods. The first half is from Lotto’s point of view, the second moves to Mathilde – and the reader is going to find out a lot of secrets, a lot of reasons why Lotto’s p.o.v. isn’t always the correct one. It is a very clever concept, and parts of it are very well done but still I thought there was a lot wrong with the book. I found the Lotto part of the story anodyne and dull, and I don’t see why anyone would keep reading except with the knowledge that everything is going to be turned upside down in the second half, the reader hopes for a clever twist. But that’s a lot of pages to wade through about how clever Lotto is, and how charming and talented and (eventually) successful.

Mathilde’s version is refreshing, coming in like a cold sharp knife through ice-cream. But it’s completely unbelievable, and much of it makes no sense. These people were presumably born in the late 1970s – Mathilde seems to be coming from the 1930s here, it all seems frightfully un-modern. The means by which she gets through college is ludicrous - completely nonsensical. I liked her character for being sharp and hard and unforgiving, but the pieces didn’t fit together. If you want to be rich, why do you then do all your own cleaning? There was an interesting subtext amid the Grimms’ fairytales, about how much work women do in a relationship, that the man could not or would not do, and cannot even appreciate. Lotto ‘had never scrubbed a toilet; he had never paid a bill. How would he write without her?’ is one of the most significant lines in the book. It’s a pity it got lost in the OTT plot.

There are moments where the writing is good and perceptive:
Oh, Lotto, Mathilde thought with loving despair. Like most deadly attractive people, he had a hollow at the center of him. What people loved most about her husband was how mellifluous their own voices sounded when they echoed back.
The second half of the book most certainly kept me reading: I did really want to know what was going to happen. But the results were disappointing.

 
SLIGHT VAGUE PLOT SPOILER

 
There’s a plot problem the book has in common with the recent Woody Allen film Blue Jasmine: If someone is involved in a dreadful financial scam, specifically a Ponzi scheme, everything is not going to be all right if the first person to find out DOESN’T tell the feds. THE MONEY HAS GONE. It’s not a vague low point, reserves a bit low, it’s a fraudulent enterprise. So the whistleblower is not to blame that there’s no money, and conversely if the whistleblower backs down that won’t resolve the crisis. The very basic economics of this seems to have eluded Mr Allen and Ms Groff.
 
END OF SPOILER

 
Also the character names are ludicrous, while the dog is perhaps the most pretentiously named pet in all fiction – it is called God. And the excerpts from Lotto’s genius plays are unreadably bad:
GO: countertenor, offstage; onstage, a puppet in water or a hologram that remains the entire opera in a glass tank
ROS: tenor, Go’s lover
CHORUS OF TWELVE: gods and tunnelers and commuters
FOUR DANCERS


-- which might be funny if it didn’t go on for pages. And: another Go – the character name I most complained about in the book Gone Girl. Fates and Furies has been compared with the Gillian Flynn bestseller – but Gone Girl at least is an honest work of crime fiction, setting out to trick the reader in a certain way. This has claims to be literary fiction, but resembles Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s infuriating because it could have been so much better.


The lady in silver with the updo is Sienna Miller at Cannes.



















26 comments:

  1. Gosh, I had no idea this book is like you describe. I'm glad I read your review.

    Yes, this book is widely touted over here and included on some readers' top books of 2015. I believe Pres. Obama liked it.

    And I don't like the "we went to the store and then came home," type of writing at all either.

    I don't know why all the hype about this book nor about The Girl on the Train, which has other problems.

    I don't know. I read Eva Dolan's books and Kati Heikkapelto's second book set in Finland, "The Defenceless," and thought it a better book than many on the U.S. best-sellers' lists.

    Glad I happened by.

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    1. Thanks Kathy. Yes, I think the President mentioned it, which will always do a book a lot of good. And now I am making a note of the books you recommend...

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  2. The Vintage Reader5 February 2016 at 12:07

    I have such a strange relationship with Ms. Groff's writing. I actively hated Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia while I was reading them, but kept going. Mainly I read both of those because they're set in areas of New York State that I know and love, but I thought they were both overwritten and self-consciously "literary." And yet... I kept reading. But I just couldn't get through Fates & Furies (I didn't know about the twist, but I doubt it would have kept me trudging through Lotto's boring life).

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    1. I was interested in the previous books, but my end reaction to this one did not encourage me to try them. I don't know how anyone gets through Lotto's story if they aren't hoping for redemption in a twist...

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  3. Oh cripes, this sounds like pretentious twassocks of the very highest magenta purple order.

    If you want a book that includes a wonderfully terrible play to take the taste away, and someone who writes weirdly, but with style and panache and actual insight and real talent, I have to recommend The Mouse and His Child by Russel Hoban. I recently reread this, and it amazed me how simultaneously bizarre, crazy, and inventively clever it is, with all the different narrative voices, quirks and tricks, and very funny, too. Everyone misunderstands everyone else, everyone's interpretations makes sense to them, even as they don't make sense to others, and as the reader, you see it from both viewpoints. It's great.

    And the play - oh blimey, the play is BAD - and enjoyably so.

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  4. On the other hand, credit where credit due, "hair in a Hitchock twist" is a FANTASTIC turn of phrase, and quite punny too. Obviously it's a reference to the famous scene in Vertigo.

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    1. Yes, I thought Hitchcock twist WAS good, because so visual. I looked at something by Russel Hoban years ago, but now will make an effort to find this one. Funny about the play...

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  5. I keep hearing about this book, Moira. It's been widely touted, and a lot of people seem to love it. But I know exactly what you mean about plodding through the novel to get to the occasional well-written passage. It sounds (dare I say it?) pretentious, instead of being a really compelling story. Hmm....knock one novel off my radar, methinks.

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    1. I can't honestly say you should be reading this one Margot. Concentrate on finding more great crime stories for us...

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  6. Lotto! Really . . . what a name. Hard to take that seriously. Glad you've saved me from reading this (and that it isn't the one you are choosing for me to read!)

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    1. In one of my first longer stories I had a character called Halma, but his real name was Helmuth, so it made more sense!

      Lotto actually would make sense if short for Charlotte or similar, like Lottie/Lotta are common abbreviations for that.

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    2. Christine: I read this one so you don't have to. And working on finding one you WILL like...
      Daniel: I almost think Lotto would be all right for a girl - but it is not a man's name! I don't think it's explained why he has such an odd name.

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    3. Molly, The Vintage Reader6 February 2016 at 13:42

      There was something about how his name was Lancelot, but someone didn't want to call him Lance...and then there was a scene with another Lance. Either way, naming the protagonist Lancelot is a little too LET ME HIT YOU OVER THE HEAD WITH MY SYMBOLISM HAMMER for me.

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    4. Oh right yes, I'd forgotten that. Which means the symbolism failed for me...

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    5. There's an artist called Lorenzo Lotto, too. Lovely portraits.

      Lotto as short for Lancelot makes sense, actually.

      I admit, I have also written a novel (Unpublished) where the hero is called Ludo (short for Ludovic), by his nearest and dearest, so I can't really be snooty, can I?

      Not sure there's many other games that translate well to names for people, although I've always thought Totopoly would be a good moniker for a parrot. I've seen a couple of Ping Pongs, including the Peke in the Rupert Bear stories, but that's well, vaguely racist, isn't it?

      Uno could work quite well,actually, although Parcheesi or Mahjong might be pushing it. And most definitely not Pussy-Wants-a-Corner, not even in the stupidest, most determined James Bond parody.

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    6. But truly, Ludo is perfectly fine. I suppose we each have our own inner ear as to which names are right and which aren't. And I suppose we each think we have perfect pitch for this.
      But named after games - solid gold idea! We already have Solitaire and Patience after all. Boggle could be a nice nickname in certain circs. Yahtzee? Bunco and Bingo both sound very PG Wodehouse. I don't suppose Pictionary would get far. WE used to play a card game called Chase the Ace, which has a certain ring to it...

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  7. Moira: I am saved from reading a book I had never heard about. Sometimes I glad to feel out of touch on what is most popular.

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    1. I did think it was funny - I had never heard of this book until recently, and no-one I know talks about it...

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  8. Kati Heikkapelto's first book in the series about Anna Fegete, a Finnish police detective from a Hungarian family, and her bigoted partner, is The Hummingbird. Then comes The Defenceless. The author lives in Finland.

    Eva Dolan lives in England and her first two books deal with anti-immigrant abuse. They are excellent. And her third book deals with bigotry against people with disabilities.

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  9. Hmmm, I am evidently not in the know and don't especially want to be. Have not heard of either the author or the book. But then I concentrate on mysteries so not unexpected.

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    1. I suppose my friend do tend to be mystery fans, but it is funny that none of them have heard of this allegedly important book...

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    2. I just realized how anal I am about spoilers. I even skip over them when I know I won't read the book. Really weird.

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    3. I know what you mean - I have got better about this over the years, but in the past would have done exactly that...

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  10. Replies
    1. Not for anyone really in my important opinion...

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