I didn’t expect much from this book. I wasn’t a fan of Groff’s first book, The Monsters of Templeton, and there was nothing much in this book’s premise—rich white New Yorkers with marriage problems—that appealed to me enough to make me set aside my dislike of her first book and try this one. That’s until it rose from the dead to rejoin the Tournament of Books last week, making it the only book to compete after the semi-finals that I hadn’t read. Plus, the conversation on the TOB site made me think it was worth at least trying.
It was clear to me early on that we’re not meant to take the initial account of the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde Satterwhite entirely seriously. The first chapter is too over the top to be real—or, if it’s real, too over the top to sustain. And then there are the parenthetical comments, making notes that show the narrative is constructed and not necessarily a full and complete account. Plus, there’s the story of Lotto’s birth, “in the calm eye of a hurricane” to a mermaid (performer) named Antoinette and a father named Gawain. The baby’s full name: Lancelot. His aunt Sallie dubbed him Lotto so he wouldn’t get beat up.
And although Lotto is surrounded by tragedy, he’s continually shielded from it. When things get complicated at home, his mother sweeps him away. He’s just awkward enough not to be hated, and his skin problems don’t lead to girl (or boy) problems. Even incidents that could scar Lotto permanently seen to wash right over him. When he meets Mathilde, the sparks are instantaneous and the marriage swift, passionate, and always faithful. With Mathilde’s support, Lotto builds a successful career. The bumps along the way don’t last, until Lotto encounters a challenge that he can’t simply wash away without thinking of it again.
The book is structured in a way that I thought was evident from the start, when we’re told, of Lotto and Mathilde, “For now, he’s the one we can’t look away from.” Most promotional copy and reviews have referred to it as something we’re supposed to know. But some have referred to it having a twist that has do to with its structure. I’m going to discuss that in some detail now, so if you’re leery of spoilers, you may not want to read on. But I truly don’t think this development is meant to be a surprise twist.
The first half of the book, “Fates,” focuses on Lotto as he makes his clumsy but amiable way through the world. In the second half, “Furies,” attention turns to Mathilde, and we see just how oblivious Lotto was. Although Mathilde was steadfast in her love and support for Lotto, she had secrets that Lotto never even bothered to wonder about. In Lotto’s version of the story, it’s easy to read Mathilde as the sometimes overlooked woman behind her man, and Mathilde’s account doesn’t contradict that. But Lotto, with his rose-colored glasses, never saw Mathilde’s true nature.
I think it would be easy, reading the Mathilde-centered section, to write her off as a Fury, wreaking violence and vengeance wherever she goes, looking out only for herself and doing whatever she must. It’s certainly true that she’s a calculating person, but it’s not clear how much her early reputation for evil is just rumor that got repeated so much that it became reality. Plus, Mathilde is remarkably ill-equipped to be her own person. She learns to give, but only because that’s how she can receive.
Still, it’s hard to just dismiss her as selfish, supporting Lotto for what she can get out of it. It does seem that there is love in their relationship. It’s not a healthy love, not a marriage to aspire to. Lotto and Mathilde never escape their own selfishness. Lotto because it doesn’t occur to him to try, and Mathilde because she knows no other way to be. They love each other in the way that they can love. It’s not a good way, but does that keep it from being love?