"Oh, yes, you'd return to your wife on hands and knees, crawl the distance of the Eastern Seaboard to feel her fingers once more in your hair. You're unworthy of her [Yes.[No.]] Even as you think of flight, you're transfixed by the lovers, wouldn't dare move for fear of making them flap like birds into the blistered sky."
And that, my friends, is Lauren Groff. Some of the last lines of Part 1 of her new novel, Fates And Furies.
The best lines? Nope. They are all (or almost all) best lines. The book is a master class in best lines; a shining, rare example of that most unforgiving and brutal writer's advice: All you have to do is write the best sentence you've ever written. Then 10,000 more of the best. Then find a way to string them together into the story of something.
Which is what Groff has done here. And if you do want to learn how to be a great writer, you could do worse than skipping out on that M.F.A. program or pricey writer's retreat, dropping 28 bucks ($17-something on Amazon!) on this book, studying the hell out of it, and then spending all that money you just saved on gin cocktails and hats. It's that good. That beautiful. Occasionally, that stunning.
Fates And Furies is the story of a marriage. Not of every marriage (as so many of today's novels-about-marriage attempt to be), but just about the one — Lotto and Mathilde.
It is a split narrative, first Lotto's version of events (Fates), then Mathilde's (Furies). It goes that way because Lotto is the simpler of the two, the grander, the more dramatic — the one whom fate (and the fortune of being born into wealth and privilege) had graced. It goes that way because Mathilde operates behind the scenes and in the shadows, keeps most of the secrets, and all of the worst ones. Because it is Lotto's version of Mathilde we must see first in order to understand Mathilde's version of Lotto.
The half-and-half narration could've failed terribly if Groff hadn't had it in her to do the hard thing — which is not to just tell two versions of the same story, but two completely different stories that happen to contain some of the same details. But she did. A long marriage isn't just about two people remembering things differently, she says with her choices. It's about two people remembering entirely different things, inhabiting entirely different worlds.
Lotto (short for Lancelot, natch) remembers asking Mathilde to marry him (the first words he ever says to her) and her saying yes and then some dates and stuff happening, and then them having sex for the first time.
Mathilde recalls saying no to his proposal, waking fully clothed beside him the next morning, and the way he slept with his fists balled beneath his chin.
Lotto remembers their first apartment, a basement in Manhattan, and how happy they were there. Mathilde remembers the secret lengths she went to in order to pay the bills, all the rice and beans they ate for dinner, the terrible sacrifices, hard choices, misery.
Lotto remembers being an actor. Mathilde remembers him failing.
The voice that tells Lotto's half of the tale is dreamy. Mathilde's is rougher, crueler. A Greek chorus chimes in now and then in snarky, bracketed asides, which work beautifully within the architectural construction of Groff's voice.
The marriage (which comes fast upon that disputed proposal) follows a predictable path through the standard-issue minefield of all marriages, but the wonder is in seeing it in full, from two different sides. In seeing Lotto rise and fall and rise again, and in seeing what Mathilde did quietly, mostly furtively, to engineer these changes in fortune. In feeling how utterly convincing Lotto's version of events is right up until Mathilde takes the stage.
Early on, Lotto's drama teacher asks the class what the difference is between comedy and tragedy.
"Solemnity versus humor," someone says. "Gravity versus lightness."
Wrong, says the teacher. There is no difference. "It's a question of perspective. ... It simply depends on how you frame what you're seeing."
By the end of Fates And Furies, we have seen both sides, maybe even all sides of Lotto and Mathilde. We've seen the man and the woman behind the man, borne witness to terrible truths brought forth for spite's sake and watched a dark turn to furious vengeance when Mathilde (suddenly, but not at all uncharacteristically) goes full Lady MacBeth and scorches the very earth. We know their secrets. We know their fears. We know what they did behind closed doors (and ones just slightly ajar). And yet still we are left with one lingering question.
Do we close the book believing in the purity and genius of the fated son, or with nothing but a cold and lingering fury?
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.