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-- 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.
ROS: tenor, Go’s lover
CHORUS OF TWELVE: gods and tunnelers and commuters
The lady in silver with the updo is Sienna Miller at Cannes.