Lauren Groff’s "Fates and Furies" is a glimpse at new work "Florida"

by Isabelle Blank | 4/17/18 2:15am

Lauren Groff, a master of evocative prose and unexpected narrative twists, has a new book coming out this summer. Groff’s “Florida,” a collection of short stories to be released June 5, is her first work since the much acclaimed 2015 novel “Fates and Furies.” The new volume explores the themes of motherhood, mental illness and the general plight of being human. While we don’t know much about “Florida” beyond the publisher’s note, a look back at Groff’s most recent work — which then-President Barack Obama named his favorite book of the year — can help set our expectations for the collection.

“Fates and Furies” deals with many of the same themes as “Florida.” The novel features complex characters with fantastic names — Antoinette, Gawain, Lancelot and Mathilde — who inhabit settings from New York City to the French countryside. But the novel’s narrative remains tied to Florida: its swamplands, its sprawling Southern mansions, its beaches and condos … and its secrets. “Fates and Furies” is the story of a marriage. It is a double portrait, a split narrative written from two sides. The first half of the novel, “Fate,” is from the earnest point of view of the husband, Lancelot Satterwhite. The second half is told from the perspective of his inscrutable widowed wife, Mathilde.

Son to Antoinette and the late Gawain, brought up in a Florida mansion and then in a cramped condo, Lancelot is sent away to a New England boarding school. Lanky and acne-pitted, Lotto, as he is called, is out of his element, marked as different by his birth-state. Groff details Lotto’s transformation from awkward youth to twinkling Vassar student. He catches the eye of the mysterious and bone-sharp Mathilde. The two marry within weeks. Their marriage is a whirlwind romance that, even in its budding stages, spins a little off-kilter, though it seems fatal all the same.

Groff’s vivid imagery congeals into an arsenal of clues for the reader to draw upon later: a gargoyle on a train, plays within a novel, a root covered base to tip. The novel’s first half follows the course of Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage from basement apartment to cozy house in the New England countryside. It details Lotto’s failure as an actor, his success as a playwright and his estrangement from his mother. It spells out his failings and triumphs as a husband and man, his insatiable love and lust for his wife Mathilde. We meet Mathilde in “Fates” through the veil of her husband’s perspective: cold, mysterious, alluring, whip-smart.

It’s only when Lotto dies that the veil separating reader from the true Mathilde falls away. As a result, layers of Mathilde’s personal history and trauma come tumbling down. Groff, perhaps a little heavy-handed here, though to poignant effect, quotes Alice Tolkien: “I have sat very long and very often with many wives and many wives of geniuses.” The second half of the book, “Furies,” offers the reader a chance to sit with the wife of the genius. If “Fates” is about what we take from our partners, “Furies” is about what we leave behind. Told from Mathilde’s point of view, “Furies” transforms the double-painted portrait into baroque sculpture. The narrative and characters become wholly different when seen from a different angle.

Seemingly cold Mathilde is launched into a deep depression after Lotto’s death. Torn from Lotto and from herself, she spills the story of all she’s lost, speaking unsentimentally. She describes another name and a darker life before the one she shared with Lotto, with a childhood ripped out from under her, a native language concealed and a college education provided to her on conditional terms. The silvery shape of Mathilde takes form, becomes blood drenched and emerges in full color. Mathilde’s story is one made tragic not only by the trauma she suffered, but by everything she did not reveal to her husband. It’s a cautionary tale about the parts of ourselves we keep concealed from those we love most. Mathilde is a kind of Lady Macbeth, the quiet driving force behind the very un-Macbeth Lotto. But it is Mathilde rather than Lotto who survives; it is he who succumbs to off-stage death. Lady Macbeth goes on without her knight. They are from different worlds after all — Lady Macbeth from a dark past in Europe, Lancelot from the warm climate of a Southern Camelot.

“Fates and Furies” is about wives and sons and fathers and sons and wives and husbands and wives and sons again. It is about longtime friends who become enemies and who become friends once more, a Floridian snake eating its own tail, a narrative consuming its own tale.

Groff has been a resident of Florida for a little over a decade. She lives in Gainesville, a place where she says “everything seems a little bit dangerous,” with her two sons and husband. She is a master of evocatively weaving together a strong sense of place and character. The Florida she invokes in “Fates and Furies” is a setting host to many contradictions. Groff’s Florida is simultaneously seaside utopia and swampy inferno, mystical and commercial, a place for the old and a place for the young.

The June 5 release of “Florida” promises tales of mothers and their children, of madness, hurricanes and Northern escapes. Many of the stories in “Florida” draw upon family and personal history. Groff explains that she wrote many of the stories with a singular person in mind. She describes a story about a woman who leaves her marriage to run a bookstore up north with her son, citing her father-in-law’s mother, who ran a bookstore during World War II, as the inspiration. If “Florida’s” Florida is as sticky as the Florida of “Fates and Furies,” a palimpsest of secrets and swampland, then the stories which grow out of that setting, fertilized by Groff’s sharp prose, are sure to be fascinating.