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Despite being one of the best reviewed books of the year, this novel feels like a mechanical production, something borne of a calculated idea rather than a deeply felt literary work. A marriage from two perspectives is fine as an idea, although hardly original. But when Evan S. Connell did it with his novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr Bridge, the characters felt alive and multi-dimensional. Those PEOPLE were at the heart. Drawn with subtlety. Here, we're stuck with two excessively tall concepts.
Reader reviews complain about "unlikable characters". But it isn't that--who doesn't love unlikeable characters??-- it's just that for 200 pages, the characters are boring, boring, boring. No interesting insights or ideas, no humor. It's impossible to image Lotto as a "famous playwright" (never mind "genius") since we only have evidence of him being a dullard. And the descriptions of the plays make them sound dreadful.
When, in the second half, the characters become more "interesting", the events are SO extreme, the backstories so wildly over-the-top (cruelty, rape, abandonment, prostitution, theft, you name it) the book lurches into psychological thriller category, minus the suspense. We find out that Mathilde (the wife) was/is a psycho, but the husband is already dead, so it's just served up as background. And little of it is plausible in the universe set up in the first half of the book. The scenes with the "private detective" are an embarrassment. Did no one edit this book?
Groff is a talented, intelligent writer who often crafts beautiful sentences and images. She's for sure NO HACK. She's doing something interesting with point-of-view, even if it at times feels forced. But so much overwriting and so many classical lit references tossed in to "elevate" this silliness and bait critics.
A word on the sex: We're told over and over and over how hot these two main characters are for each other, even down to some really silly, boilerplate s/m nonsense and bondage. (When the neckties come out, you know you're in for something you've already read a million times.) For some reason, I found it creepy. It's the antithesis of erotic and because the characters are so bloodless, it's oddly unsettling, like watching someone making a fool of themselves while trying to be "sexy". No sexual cliche is overlooked, from homosexual molestation to sexual humiliation via sushi.
The narrators are good, the woman far superior to the man. (His voices for women characters make them sound like ninnies.)
14 of 14 people found this review helpful
"Marriage is made of lies; kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you'd crush them to paste. She never lied, just never said."
The difficulty in reviewing this novel (recently named to the National Book Award longlist), moreso than many others, is to avoid giving away too much of the plot or structure.
Ms. Groff has written a book that, in resplendent prose, dissects marriage: a community of 2... as 1 ("in they came integers, out they came squared"). We see the background and the marriage first from the husband's perspective, then from the wife's point of view. I heard Ms. Groff say in an interview that it took her nearly 5 years to write this book. It shows, splendidly. The novel is fabulous, at times stormy, and always ambitious, and has all the elements of the greats: passion, deception, betrayal, tragedy, redemption.
Lauren Groff probes the marriage of two vibrant and fully-developed characters, Lotto and Mathilde (and an assorted, colorful cast of their friends and family) by calling, with seeming ease, to the ancients in Greek tragedies, mythology (and mermaids), and, of course, the marvelously provided subtext of the Fates and Furies.
Lotto is a failed actor turned playwright, and Mathilde is quite the scholar in the fine arts. So quite naturally, the novel is also a paean to the theater ("empty theaters are quieter than other empty places"), playwrights, Shakespearean tragedies, complimented by remarkable symbolism and short readings of rich pieces of original meta-plays, while always avoiding any trace of the affected, didactic or overly erudite.
I found this to be a strikingly rewarding and quite original novel that made me reflect heavily upon good and evil (and the gray gulf between), the different perspectives and forms of love of each spouse and what "marriage" really means as two meld into (but are never quite) one.
The narrators were perfect.
I highly recommend this novel.
58 of 63 people found this review helpful