Saturday, 24 June 2017

Something I Read - Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies is the third novel Lauren Groff has had published. I was a bit dubious when I saw that the author of Girl on a Train had supplied the main enthusiastic quote on the cover but I decided to give it a try regardless. I'd enjoyed the audio book of Arcadia, after all, even if I might never have actually completed it if I'd been reading it (that is one of the interesting things about audio - you can put up with a lot more from a book when you are not actually making the effort to drag your eye across those weird little spidery black shapes on the page, but instead getting through it while driving or cleaning the bathroom or ironing).

Well Fates and Furies turned out to be a hundred times better than Girl on a Train. Lauren Groff is a much better writer than the normal best seller hack, avoiding annoyingly repetitive prose or cliched phrases or any of the dull pedestrian tropes that are the meat of chick lit and so forth. All the same, for my taste, she is overly fond of the lyrical. Here is an example of the kind of thing I mean:

...nearly everyone began grinning back, so that on this spangled early evening with the sun shining through the windows in gold streams and the treetops rustling in the wind and the streets full of congregating relieved people, Lotto sparked upwellings of inexplicable glee in dozens of chests, lightening the already buoyant mood of the room in one swift wave. 

That said, Groff has a rich imagination and, although she chooses to set the entire action of the book in the same kind of absurdly privileged territory inhabited by the characters in A Little Life and despite the fact that her two main characters are preposterous, she does have the ability to draw you in and entertain you and keep you moving along with the plot - which has a clever mirrored kind of structure so that the end and the beginning in a peculiar way almost meet.

On the down side, she is quite solemn. Mind you, what the book lacks in humour - I only noticed one joke and it was not a new or terribly funny one:

'You're a pathological truth teller,' Lotto once said to her, and she laughed and conceded that she was. She wasn't sure just then if she was telling the truth or if she was lying - 

it certainly makes up for with masses of sex, which probably sells better.

While I'm griping I should point out that there is a rather large chunk of the book where the author appears to be exorcising her desire to be a playwright and I found that a bit tedious.  In addition - and more importantly for me -  while Groff is an imaginative writer and a reasonable, if rather gushing, stylist, I did not feel that the book had any wisdom to impart. I do recognise that it is refreshingly ambitious and sprawling when compared to the preciousness of Ian McEwan or Julian Barnes, but at the end I had not gained a new perspective on existence or understanding of the human species. Maybe I ask too much - as I take Middlemarch and Anna Karenina as my benchmarks, inevitably I am often disappointed. And I know some might say that Dickens, who I love, also created more than his fair share of preposterous characters, not to mention gush. However, he also had the ability to show things in an entirely new light and to be extremely funny, (the Veneerings' dinner party springs to mind as just one example). I should point out that Groff does attempt to give her novel a bit of intellectual credibility by larding it with references to classical Greek texts, from which I assume we are supposed to draw parallels. However, this seemed to me to be a superficial attempt at burnishing something that doesn't have much depth, rather than a genuinely successful deepening of the work.

All the same, as I think I mentioned, the novel was entertaining and enjoyable, what I suppose might be called "a good read".  However, I think it will turn out to be almost completely forgettable, like many good reads. It lacked any real resonance for me, I was never persuaded to care about the main characters or to see that they mattered in any way - or even really existed. Oddly, the reason I didn't really believe they existed may also have been the reason they were entertaining - their family backgrounds and lives were ludicrously dramatic. Just as when in the past I have got drawn into soap operas, I didn't believe the events for a minute but did find them grotesquely fascinating, so I didn't believe anything about the novel but I went along, cheerfully, for the ride.

Sadly, as with soap operas, I emerged unenriched. But how solemn of me to demand enrichment. Groff is clever and imaginative and energetic and better than a lot of others in her chosen field.


  1. I did not care for it. It was one of those books we read for our book club and that made us wonder whether the hosts had read it before selecting it. I kept running across odd expressions--the contrail unfurling, the man's abdomen with a texture like creme brulee. (Any creme brulee in my fridge with a texture like a middle-aged man's abdomen would be discarded in a hurry.) Some was badly observed--the grown man with his ribs showing through his chest. And just in general I found it mostly unbelievable. People behave badly, but like that? People speak crassly, but like that? I know plenty of Americans with foul mouths, but haven't yet heard any declare that his equipment was on the table.

    1. Agree on all counts, but I still give her points for effort - perhaps I should have just condemned it as trash and accepted that trash is trash and cannot be graded, instead of thinking that, within the category, it was not as terrible as it might have been. As to that unspeakable creme brûlée analogy, do you think she was thinking of a creme brûlée with hard sugar surface intact? It would make it even weirder, if so

    2. I could make no sense of it all. In my bachelor days, I occasionally found items in the fridge that appeared to be growing hair, but that could hardly be what she meant.

    3. I think that is exactly what she meant, although I hadn't realised before. He must have been a very hairy man though as in my limited experience few people have stomach as opposed to chest hair. But perhaps I've just led a very sheltered life

  2. Thank you for saving me the effort of reading this. I would have been more interested if it was a hundred times worse than The Girl on a Train, as that would have been a real accomplishment.