In the early pages of Fates and Furies, the masterful and much-lauded third novel from Lauren Groff ’01 (The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia), a theater instructor at a boarding school for boys asks his students the difference between tragedy and comedy, and a student suggests that the difference is an issue of solemnity versus humor. “False,” the instructor says. “A trick. There’s no difference. It’s a question of perspective. Storytelling is a landscape, and tragedy is comedy is drama. It simply depends on how you frame what you’re seeing.” In this book, Groff shifts every fictional frame imaginable, with stunning virtuosity, to illuminate one of the most memorable relationships in recent American writing.

The narrative is structured around the marriage of Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite, a failed actor turned legendary playwright, and Mathilde, who gave up her own aspirations in order to tend to her husband’s massive yet good-natured and delicate ego, cultivating and ensuring his greatness in ways that are not immediately apparent.

Lauren Groff '01

The first half of the book, the section titled “Fates,” is told largely from Lotto’s point of view. Groff takes us from Lotto’s background as the scion of a bottled-water empire in Florida through his tumultuous artistic ascendancy. In the second half, titled “Furies,” the clock resets, and we see the relationship from the other side, as Groff goes back to show the secrets that constitute Mathilde’s life, including her unspoken-of childhood in France and the sexual arrangement that paid her way through college. After Lotto is betrayed by an old friend, we see just how far outside the realm of morality Mathilde will go in order to honor and defend her commitment to her husband.

Oh, and throughout both sections, there are bracketed Greek-chorus-like interjections from a playful plurality of entities—let’s call them Fates—whose omniscience and position outside of time is such that they actually know how the world ends, although they usually prefer to comment with bemusement on the folly of their subjects.

This is the story of a marriage, sure. There is palpable love on the page (something we’re so often told we’re supposed to see and feel in fiction but so rarely do), built here mostly out of pains: the ache of separation, or love as the absence of absence. But intrinsic to the power of the book is the way Groff plays with the gauze of fiction itself, drawing it over our eyes, occluding a truth to reveal it later, in the same place, somewhere right in the foreground that we had never thought to look. This gauze is evident in the sentence that opens one chapter: “After the incomprehension and the raw fish came the long fl ight, then the short.” Only further down the page do we realize this is a character returning from Japan.

In Fates and Furies, Groff plays with the gauze of fiction, drawing it over our eyes.

It’s a small example, but illustrative of Groff ’s brilliance and the game she plays so well here. We think a story is composed of facts, but so often facts turn out to be illusory constructions, shadows cast upon a wall that look entirely diff erent when viewed from another angle. Groff takes us on a tour of every possible viewing angle of the truth of marriage, while still managing to propel the story forward.

At one point in the book, Mathilde bemoans her boredom with reading: “She was so tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too-worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off .” This could be a description of Groff ’s own book—a wrecking ball to stagnated notions of storytelling.