The Short Version: On an auspicious collegiate evening, Lotto meets Mathilde. Two weeks later they are married and their relationship over the next twenty years is a study in the realities of love and partnership. Then, after tragedy strikes, the fated Lotto’s story gives way to that of the furious Mathilde – and the true depths of a partnership are revealed.
The Review: There’s a recurring comment in the theater community, one often tossed off as a sort of joke, that the Macbeths have the best relationship of any couple in Shakespeare. How you react to such a comment says a lot about your views on relationships: do you wince and pull away from the brutal realities of that pair or do you smile and nod knowingly at that same reality?
Love is a complicated thing. Relationships, even more complicated. The conjoining of two minds, two souls, into a one entity (the union) – while still retaining individuality, singularity of self and purpose even in the context of that union. Most relationships don’t achieve that paradoxical bliss, even long-term relationships. Just look at how many unhappy marriages there are in the world.
And then look at Lotto and Mathilde. They provide a model for an ideal relationship, not because they are perfect but in fact because they are flawed and because even despite their flaws, they cannot exist but for each other. They are not perfect people – far from it, in fact. They fight, they hold differing opinions, they subjugate parts of themselves for each other… but not in a bad way. None of it is bad, you see; the sheer intensity of their connection burns through every page of this novel, sears itself right into the heart of the reader in a way that few other novels could ever hope to achieve. They love each other in the way that few people ever get to love – a love that partners, not combines. Their relationship alone would be enough to tout this book as an instant classic. But Groff, who has produced two very good novels and some lovely short stories previously but never anything like this, has her sights set on far more than just a well-delivered tale of a complex marriage.
This novel is a bounty of literary delights, one that set its sights on my soul from the very beginning and then managed to encapsulate nearly every single thing that I have ever loved, culturally and literally, in this world into its 400 pages. Theater, love, writing, New York City, idealism, crafting one’s own narrative, Greek gods and godly narrators… It’s like Groff wrote this book not just for me, but for me right now. As though I couldn’t have picked it up at any other moment than right now, or that if I had it would’ve been a different book in some way to aim at that moment instead of this one. There is an electric sense of indescribable magic in this book – the magic of the fates and the furies, a magic that isn’t even so much magic as it is just… energy. Palpable, like lightning or rain or the friction between two people kissing.
I grew up an actor. And, not unlike Lotto, I was very good at it for a time. I refuse to speculate on whether or not I’m still any good; I, unlike Lotto, made the choice to step back from the actor’s grind far too early to know if I could’ve made it. But I selfishly see myself in Lotto, in his ability to capture a room whether from the stage or from the couch. On my good days, I can do that – and Lotto’s semi-dazzled sense of “how the hell did I pull this off?” is all too well-known to me.
And watching Lotto try, fail, and keep trying to be an actor… it made me think of auditions I’ve been on. Of my friends who have signed on for the real slog, who audition constantly and try to make their way. And as he discovers his literary ability, somewhat suddenly and unexpectedly… I thought of the first time I wrote “The End” on a draft of a novel and the multiverse that roared into existence in my brain the minute I did so. As Lotto transitions into being a playwright, I was delighted to see Groff’s short depictions of his plays – of their notices, of their staging, of even their dialogue. To see plain well-written text felt more honest, in a way, than to’ve seen fake Playbills and ephemera, in the “illuminated” style that’s all the rage these days.
And when we come to Mathilde’s angle on the story – to hear about her life, as well as her view on their life together – I was in awe, not just of the intricacies of the puzzle pieces falling together but of the fully-formed reality on display. Too often, the turn or reveal explodes outward and sets the plot in a higher gear while sacrificing the reality of the story. It’s the revelation that you staged your own death, that someone else has been writing as the narrator as well, even that the good guy is actually a bad guy – those moments are altogether too often plot-driven instead of based in any sort of character-led reality. Because why read fiction if you want reality?
Except when fiction presents reality this well, you have your answer. Mathilde’s brilliance was not as outwardly illuminative as Lotto’s, but it was no less bright – and as characters in the novel wonder about their relationship, we (the reader) are given the opportunity to understand: these two people were just crazy about each other. They had their points of contention, of course – and the back half of the novel does explain several of these, skillfully deploying understanding in perfect doses – but the thing that never failed was their love for each other. If every marriage could be like theirs, perhaps this would be a better world.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Groff’s joyous prose, which slips through time and space like a stone across the water. I was reminded of Thornton Wilder’s great short play “The Long Christmas Dinner”, which takes place over 90 years of the same family’s Christmas dinners and where Wilder moves us through time without telling us and then waits for us to catch up. Similarly, Groff will drop the reader at a party thrown by Lotto and Mathilde… and then, in a few paragraphs, we realize that we’ve jumped several months into the future and are in fact at another of their parties. This temporal fluidity is handled deftly, making sure the reader is never drowning but that they’re often gasping for air – hungrily, excitedly, seeking the next piece of the story because it flows by like life does.
The other great performance by Groff is in her narration. The novel takes place, nearly entirely, in a close third person – the only exception being these bracketed interjections, sometimes like a stage direction or sometimes like commentary. I have my own opinions about this device, based upon what happens at the end of part one, and I’ll leave them to be discussed with those who’ve also read the book instead of spoiling their delightfulness here… but suffice to say, they add an additional level of intellectual joy and mischievous sparkle to a novel already bursting with both.
Rating: 6 out of 5. I’ve never read a book about a relationship that’s quite like this one. I’ve never read a book whose central relationship felt so vividly real, with all its flaws and problems and beauties and wonders. I’ve never read a book that spoke so clearly of a version of me that didn’t quite make it into the world but who I sense uncommon kinship with. It’s a fierce, electric novel full of theatricality and bravura language, awash in sex and love and anger and life. It is the best thing Lauren Groff has written yet and it holds the promise of even greater things to come.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Groff briefly at BEA this past year, where she signed my ARC “To Drew and Dani, with love.” And she joked that reading this book as a couple (which Dani and I did) would either break us up or show we’re the real deal. It’s fitting, then, that as some couples have songs… we have this book.