Lauren Groff's latest novel, "Fates and Furies," and her last one, "Arcadia" (2012), have titles that are in tune with Greek mythology. There, however, the similarities end. "Arcadia" tracked the lives of various inhabitants of a commune, while "Fates and Furies" homes in on the exploits of a married couple. The major difference, though, is in the new novel's scope and artistry. Groff may have narrowed her focus, but, conversely, she has managed to create a bigger, grander, more satisfyingly complex picture.
The novel is divided into two sections. "Fates" follows Lotto through his delinquent formative years in Florida, then prep school in New Hampshire. At college he is popular with the opposite sex — until he's smitten with Mathilde. Suddenly Lotto is more Romeo than Lothario. After a speedy courtship they get married, he gets disinherited, and they settle down in New York.
Groff guides us through decades replete with penury, wild parties, births and deaths and ebbing and flowing love, while charting Lotto's troublesome journey from struggling actor to successful playwright. Once he hits the big time — Broadway sellouts, critical acclaim, country mansion — his life is transformed.
Throughout his career, Mathilde provides loyal support. But is she as faithful as a lover?
The book's second section turns out to be a second perspective. Having floored us with a shock ending, Groff begins again with the aptly named "Furies," taking us into Mathilde's angry world, and her journey from friendless "devil girl" in France to childless "Dragon Wife" in America. Unlike Lotto's linear narrative, Mathilde's story weaves backward and forward. We get her take on marital events, a flip side that fills in the blanks or throws up devastating contradictions to what we were previously told. Gradually, a far darker reflection emerges, along with many an unpalatable truth. What we took to be plans were in fact machinations. What was construed as innocence was really cunning.
Groff's novel comes furnished with trapdoors and distorting mirrors, but it isn't all trickery. Far more striking is her lyrical prose. Every page contains at least one rich metaphor or dazzlingly original image. "Home, moonlight planing the surface of the desk, bone fingers of winter trees plucking stars from the sky." A girl jumps, "her skirt up-petaling like a tulip." Cool bedsheets "brushed her skin like accusations."
Some of this is laid on too thick, clogging paragraphs and stymieing narrative development. Also, Groff's characters' words enchant but don't always convince. However, the bulk of the time Groff gets the balance just right and produces stunning results.
"Fates and Furies" skillfully corroborates the old saw that behind every great man there stands a woman. It also shows a hugely talented writer advancing not only with sure-footed strides but powering forward in impressive leaps and bounds.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.