In this post, Mr. A.M.B. critiques long book reviews and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies:
I typically skip long reviews of books before reading the book. I assume they’re more geared towards criticism and interpretation than towards actually telling me if I should read the book or not.
I thus didn’t read much about Fates and Furies before reading it, because most of the reviews I saw were quite lengthy. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is a story about the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde, told first from Lotto’s perspective (“Fates”) and then again from Mathilde’s (“Furies”). Lotto’s tale is told primarily in chronological order. Mathilde picks up the tale at the end of “Fates” and then fills in details about the past via flashbacks and the like.
Now, having read the book and then the reviews, I wonder what on earth is going on at the major publishing outlets. For example:
- The New Yorker justifies dumping all of the major turning points of the book with the excuse: “a novel that can be truly ‘spoiled’ by the summary of its plot is a novel that was already spoiled by that plot.” It’s a cute turn of phrase, but one that is just as meaningless as the lyrics to a pop song. The prolonged review ends with an equally meaningless admonition: “Narrative secrets are not the same as human mysteries, a lesson that novelists seem fated to forget, again and again; the former quickly confess themselves, and fall silent, while the true mysteries go on speaking.”
- The New York Times’ review looks more like the product of a quick skim of the book than an actual reading. They conclude that the husband’s instant transformation from a privileged and libidinous playboy into an ascetic and monogamous artist was “fairly plausible, a life that might transpire in the world the rest of us inhabit.” They similarly argue that, “In later years, while [the wife] is capable of love … she isn’t notably softened by that emotion in any essential way,” which suggests to me that they wholly missed one of the key plot turnings in the book.
- The Washington Post’s review struck me as the most reasonable one, even if they embarrassingly said the characters went to Yale instead of Vassar. I searched the book: “Yale” appears nowhere in it. A minor mistake, but the type of plain error that makes it difficult to take the rest of the review seriously.
- NPR frames the story as, “The voice that tells Lotto’s half of the tale is dreamy. Mathilde’s is rougher, crueler. … Do we close the book believing in the purity and genius of the fated son, or with nothing but a cold and lingering fury?” I’d answer: neither. Lotto’s “purity” comes more from his extraordinarily self-absorption than from any real strength of character, and Mathilde’s “coldness” is revealed to be a facade by her devotion to Lotto and her truly generous act in helping two people who had shown her nothing but malice and manipulation.
I liked Fates and Furies, not least because the pacing is indeed “propulsive,” as the book’s back cover says, but I’d recommend it with the caveat that “people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” It’s not for everybody. The prose is highfalutin, the main characters are so deep in the rarefied world of the arts that they’re not relatable, and the book over-reaches with the abundant references to classical tragedies and comedies, the parenthetical comments presumably from the Greek choir, and the excerpts from Lotto’s plays. In a word, the book is pretentious, but at least the author runs with it.