I don’t know how I feel about this novel. On the one hand, there’s no question that Lauren Groff can write and I kind of like the way the narrator of this novel slips into the heads of the characters but then pulls out [often in brackets] to comment on the story from a more omniscient vantage point. As a reader, you’re pulled in and then shoved out and then pulled in again [yes, I know how that sounds.]
This is both the story of a marriage and the story of two complicated people who make up that marriage—Lotto (short for Lancelot) and Mathilde. It is these two people, who in many ways are perfect for each other, that kept me from feeling fully comfortable while reading this (and maybe that’s the point.) They are horrible and complicated and very real and as characters in a novel, they are fascinating—like watching reality TV or staring at a car wreck—but if I met them in real life, I’d run, not walk, in the other direction.
The novel begins with Lotto and Mathilde having sex on a beach, which the narrator describes from Lotto’s perspective. They are seniors in college and they have just secretly gotten married. Lotto is overwhelmed with emotion and his love for Mathilde seems mixed with both ownership and ideas about her purity and goodness. For the first half of the novel, we see events through Lotto’s perspective—as they move from college to a small New York apartment, as Lotto attempts to make it as an actor but ends up becoming a successful playwright. Mathilde works in an art gallery and later for an Internet startup but her main job is to be the supportive wife—taking care of Lotto, making sure the household runs smoothly, and pushing Lotto artistically. [In the second half of the book, when the focus shifts more to Mathilde, we learn to what degree she really is the puppet master.] They are seen by their friends as a golden couple—both annoying and amazing in equal measure.
The first half of the novel is fairly chronological. After the opening chapter, Groff backtracks and begins with the story of how Lotto’s parents, Gawaine and Antoinette, met in Florida and from his birth during a hurricane we follow Lotto from Florida to a private school on the East Coast to Vassar and onwards. It’s in the second half of the book, that Groff begins to play with time and moves back and forth, giving us Mathilde’s story.
I thought by the time I finished writing these paragraphs, I’d have a better idea of how I feel about this book, but I don’t. It’s worth reading and it made me think a lot about art, and fate, and about how we never really know the people we love (not to mention the people we don’t). However, I was happy to finish it and move on to something that didn’t make me feel so uneasy