Is it possible to like a novel yet like none of the characters?
Is it possible to admire the endurance of a marriage between two unlikeable people?
How do you handle when a book tells you over and over that one particular character is awesome, great, amazing, yet you’re not even sure the author believes it or wants the reader to? (Call it the “doth protest too much” factor.)
When I heard Richard Russo, my favorite modern author, singing the highest praises for Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, on NPR a month or so ago, my reading that book was never in question. I would read it because the man who has written so many books I love told me to.
Fates and Furies might be the first book in 20 years I disliked yet completed.
First, a few non-spoilery details that might explain things. The novel follows a married couple, from their childhoods until what could (maybe possibly) be the end of their marriage, and the book is split into two halves, the first focused on him, the second on her.
The man is Lancelot. As in, he f*#ks everything he ever wants to growing up. The way it reads, not even Dracula himself had the kind of seductive erotic hypnotic power over all of humankind as Lancelot. And apparently none of the hundreds with whom he ever slept walked away with anything less than a glimmering opinion of the man and his character. Which, to my knowledge, has happened exactly never in the real world.
(Is this some kind of jealousy on my part? It’s not a dismissable question, but it’s definitely beside the point. I’ve had plenty of massively sexually active male friends in life, and I’ve never been as annoyed with them as I was with this guy.)
But because it’s not fair to give him just one burdensome symbolic moniker, Groff also shortens it to “Lotto.” Because he’s the focal point of the “Fates” half of the book. Get it? GET IT??? LIKE, HE WON THE LOTTO! To push two goofy slap-you-in-the-face names on a single character... now that's chutzpah.
The woman is Mathilde. But her name is not so simple either, and the second half of the book explores quite deftly why she is the focus of the “Furies” half of the book.
I didn’t like Lotto.
I didn’t like the “Fates” half of this book.
I didn’t like him, or any (save maybe one) of his family and friends.
I didn't like his success, or his ego, or his needs and weaknesses.
I didn’t like how we had to be slapped so hard with the fact that, apparently, I as the reader was the only person ever in Lotto’s presence who found him utterly, completely unlikeable. As if something must be wrong with me for not seeing his awesomeness.
I didn’t particularly like Mathilde, either.
But I liked the “Furies” half of the book.
I liked that her flaws made her who she was, while Lotto’s seemed to somehow be constantly ignored or overlooked (or unseen?) by everyone around him. He thrived despite himself. She survived because of herself.
Without question, Groff is a superb writer. I’ve read some complaints of “purple prose,” and at times the structure of the words can indeed distract from the structure of the stories and character, but I don’t know many truly brilliant writers who don’t occasionally fall into this trap (John Irving immediately comes to mind).
Either because I’m a sexist, or a wannabe feminist, or maybe both, I simply couldn’t give up on the book until I had a chance to see things from Mathilde’s perspective. It’s the one anticipation that made the first half -- which really is quite insufferable -- worth plowing through. I survived the first half because I wanted it to be revealed that Mathilde secretly detested Lotto as much as I did.
I didn't exactly get my wish, but I'm glad I stuck it out. In Mathilde we get someone whose entire life seems to be a volcano at the bottom of the ocean, her pleasant and inscrutable demeanor the buoy atop the water thousands of feet up.
Some critics speak of "feminist rage" or "feminine rage." In the words of Foghorn Leghorn, it’s about as subtle as a hand grenade in a barrel of oatmeal. But her character is so much more complicated and intriguing than that... if not quite likeable.
I didn’t like the characters, but I want to talk about the book.
I didn’t love the book, but I won’t soon forget it.
Does that make it good?