FATES AND FURIES, by Lauren Groff. Riverhead Books, 390 pp., $27.95.
"Two people were coming up the beach. She was fair and sharp in a green bikini, though it was May in Maine and cold. He was tall, vivid; a light flickered in him that caught the eye and held it. Their names were Lotto and Mathilde."
Lancelot "Lotto" Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder are 22 years old, they have just gotten married, and they are about to make love in the sand. The opening sequence of Lauren Groff's fourth novel, "Fates and Furies," ends with comments from a seeming Greek chorus that addresses the reader in brackets throughout the novel. "[Suspend them there, in the mind's eye: skinny, young, coming through dark toward warmth, flying over the cold sand and stone. We will return to them. For now, he's the one we can't look away from. He is the shining one.]"
The Fates were Greek goddesses who controlled the course and the length of people's lives and the manner of their deaths; the Furies were infernal female avatars of vengeance and punishment. Groff's novel has halves named for each. The first half, Fates, tells the story of the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde from Lotto's perspective. It begins with his childhood in Florida as the heir to a bottled water fortune, continues through his schooling in New England, his life with Mathilde in New York as a not-very-successful actor and then as an internationally famous playwright. Chapters containing excerpts from and glosses on each of his plays reprise the themes and events of Lotto's beginnings in the story of his middle age.
Lotto is a golden giant of a man whose radiance illuminates this section of the novel, though the Fates -- with the novelist as their deputy -- deal out untimely deaths, accidents and difficulties along the way. Among those whose threads are snipped short are Lotto's father, Gawain, his first lover, just 16, an unpopular boy at school, a few college friends, a beloved collaborator. Lotto's innate glow and the perfection of his enviable marriage are dimmed, as can happen in middle age, by a series of unfortunate events: an accident at an airport, a tough time at an artist colony, a disgrace at a symposium, the continued disdain of Manhattan's top theater critic.
The second half of the novel, Furies, flips to Mathilde's point of view. Shockingly, but deliciously, the B-side of this marriage is a totally different story: a gothic, plotty reveal of lies, secrets, betrayals, vengeful schemes and long-term deceptions that go back to Lotto's birth and continue after his death. While very little can be said about this section without spilling beans, Mathilde is unmasked as a fury herself, recalling the fierce, scheming central characters of Claire Messud's "The Woman Upstairs" and Siri Hustvedt's "The Blazing World."
All the twists and turns of this complicated plot are carried along by Groff's musical, nearly magical writing, familiar to the fans of her preceding novels, particularly "Arcadia." Whether noting the weather -- "Hot milk of a world, with its skin of morning fog in the window" -- or summing up a trip to Japan in a single sentence -- "After the incomprehension and the raw fish came the long flight, then the short" -- Groff is always original, always sharp. Each section of the book builds like a fugue, and ends with a perfect coda, whether a grace note -- "Now for a stiff scotch and a toddle off to bed, dovey, like the good girl you've become" -- or the end of the universe -- "And then, at the very center of things, when they are at their closest, there will open a supermassive black hole."
Another similarity to "Arcadia," which tells the story of a utopian '60s commune, is Groff's ability to create richly interconnected communities of people, then age the whole group over decades. Here the childhood and college friends of Lotto and Mathilde are seen at a beautifully executed series of parties, each showing the shifting fortunes and reconfigured alliances of the group as well as the changing zeitgeist around them. "I used to go to the Satterwhites' parties in the nineties," says a walk-on character. A more important one replies, "Oh. Well, everybody went to those."
There is so much to say about "Fates and Furies"; surely readers will be talking about it in and out of book clubs for quite some time. With it, Lauren Groff consolidates her spot among our most ambitious and gifted novelists.