Why Diane's guest Ben Wittes says no.
The story of a marriage, told from two points of view… Secrets, sex, tragedy – and a Greek chorus chiming in with asides… These could easily describe elements of a play, but this is Lauren Groff’s 2015 novel “Fates and Furies.” It’s the tale of a 24-year relationship as seen by the people at its center: the husband, Lotto, and the wife, Mathilde. What emerges from their dramatically different accounts is an exploration of myth versus reality, in marriage…and in life. We’ll explore what made this novel such a success; President Obama himself called it his favorite book of last year. For this month’s Readers’ Review, Diane and her guests discuss Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies.”
- Maureen Corrigan Book critic, NPR's Fresh Air; author, "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures"
- Ron Charles Fiction editor, The Washington Post
- Tayla Burney Producer and books editor, The Kojo Nnamdi Show; creator and curator, WAMU in your Bookstore
Read An Excerpt
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Lauren Groff's 2015 novel "Fates and Furies" is split down the middle. For the first half, titled "Fates," we're in the world of the husband at this book's central marriage, bright magnetic Lotto. He seems destined for greatness, but he's marked by tragedy. For the second half of the book, called "Furies," we're in the darker, more grim, even scarier world of the wife, Mathilde and suddenly, all we thought we knew from Lotto's account of their marriage falls away.
MS. DIANE REHMHere to talk about this critically acclaimed work, Maureen Corrigan of NPR's Fresh Air, Ron Charles of The Washington Post and Tayla Burney of our own WAMU and "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Throughout the hour, I do invite you to join us for this discussion. Feel free to call us on 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Well, it's good to see you all.
MS. MAUREEN CORRIGANThank you, Diane.
MR. RON CHARLESIt's great to be here.
MS. TAYLA BURNEYThank you, Diane.
REHMGood to have you all here. Tayla Burney, tell us why you love this novel so much.
BURNEYI love this novel because I think it's so interesting to look at a marriage and get the two different perspectives on it. I think there is this sort of commonly held understanding that you don't know what happens in a marriage unless you're part of it.
BURNEYAnd I think we all hold that to be sort of a universal truth and I think it's even more compelling to me to look within this marriage and see how Lotto experiences it and then to, in the second half, find out how Mathilde experienced it and sort of discover what they didn't know about each other because I think that if you'd ask Lotto, he would've said, oh, I know my wife so well. And then, you discover some things about her that she didn't share. I found that really compelling.
REHMRon Charles, how about you?
CHARLESI agree with all that. I'd also add that the style of this book is so rich and so interesting, the way the two halves of this book reflect their protagonist, that first half is so lush and romantic and a little ridiculous. And the second half is so bitter and hard. It's just a tremendous performance.
REHMTell me how it begins, Maureen.
CORRIGANWell, we begin with Lancelot, Lotto's life. He's a child of privilege. At a certain point, that privilege is sort of pulled out from under him, but eventually he makes it to Vassar, which is where he will meet his future wife, Mathilde. They marry right after graduation and they go on to live in New York City. They're kind of hand to mouth for a while. She's the mainstay, the support of the family until one day, Lotto, who's blacked out in a kind of alcoholic haze, a la F. Scott Fitzgerald.
CORRIGANI think Ron compared some of the passages in this book to Fitzgerald's, especially where we're hearing descriptions of Lotto. He blacks and lo and behold, when he wakes up, he's written a master work of a play. I mean, I wish it happened that way for any of us. And he goes on to great success. That's Lotto's story in miniature at the beginning of the novel.
REHMMaureen, how did you feel about this book?
CORRIGANI thought much of the language was dazzling. I thought the narrative structure was incredible. I mean, I think in my review, I likened it to the intricacy of a Charles Dickens novel where you never know where the narrative is going to go. And then, I thought, at the end, it was an austere architectural achievement. I thought that there was nothing compelling about either of these two characters. And it's not like you always have to have a character-driven novel to equal -- in order for a novel to be good, that you've got to have these characters who you care about or like.
CORRIGANBut this novel is so hermetically sealed in the life of this marriage, as Tayla was saying, that if you don't care about the characters, I think you come away, as I did, admiring it, but feeling nothing about it.
REHMOf course, there are other characters that we meet early on in the novel. In fact, there is Lotto's sister, Rachel. Lotto has been disinherited because he marries Mathilde.
BURNEYYeah, absolutely. His mother, Muva, as she is called.
BURNEYIs a formidable woman unto herself.
BURNEYYes. And she's had an interesting life. She was performing in a show, an underwater spectacular when her rich husband met her and then the husband dies and there's some tumult in the family and Rachel, his younger sister, sort of, I think, gloms onto Lotto in a way, as sort of a figure of affection for her because her mother is not able to, perhaps, provide that. But yeah, Muva does not like Mathilde, does not approve of her and that certainly comes full circle in the second half when we get Mathilde's perspective because I think for Lotto, it's sort of something that he goes through this life as this kind of golden boy and he doesn't really, I think, question that estrangement to some extent, which I found interesting.
BURNEYAnd we learn much more about it when we get Mathilde's version.
REHMAnd in that opening piece, it would seem that both Lotto and Mathilde are surrounded by friends. They're all drinking and drinking and making lots of noise. And the woman upstairs is banging on the floor and the window trying to tell these people to tone it down, but this is their life, Ron Charles.
CHARLESIt's such a fantasy life, isn't it, for a lot of young people. To go to New York, to have all these shiny friends, to drink a lot, to become a famous playwright so early, so instantly. I mean, he -- as Maureen says, when he wakes up and finds that script that he apparently has written, it's on -- it's off Broadway in a few months. Even that is a little unrealistic. But this is an absolute Fitzgerald-like fantasy of instant success with the beautiful woman of your dreams.
REHMAnd up until then, he's been an abject failure.
CHARLESYes. Although, not in his own mind.
CORRIGANNo, but he realizes that he's a weak personality.
CHARLESHe's not a good actor.
CORRIGANThat he needs someone. He's not a good actor. He's not even particularly a go-getting and he likes to feel sorry for himself.
REHMDo we feel sorry for him?
BURNEYI find it a little trying to be in his company. I want to say, buck up and just get back to that desk.
REHMWell, doesn't that take us right back to the beginning of the relationship? Because wasn't he on the verge of committing suicide?
BURNEYHe was having a tough time, I think, in sort of reckoning with where his future was going to go after college because I think he did realize that he maybe had floated a bit through his college years and had some success as an actor in college. He, you know, when they first meet, he's celebrating his successful triumph as Hamlet in the senior production at Vassar. And yeah, I think he is sort of questioning where his life goes from here and I think it sort of happens that he meets Mathilde, that she comes into this life at the exact time when he needs her and he does need her. He knows he's not able to do this on his own.
REHMAnd why does she need him?
CHARLESWell, she needs money and she needs a family and she needs a home. And she identifies him and she goes after him in a very calculated way. But I want to talk -- return to those suicides, which keep coming up through the novel. It's really -- not to make light of suicide or depression, but in Lotto's case, it is a kind of narcissistic self-involved, oh, I'm going to commit suicide, I'm going to commit suicide. It's a kind of, you know, I mean, how you can't claim that too many times before people stop taking you seriously and realize it's just part of your own self absorption.
REHMDo you think Mathilde takes him seriously when he's in the depths of his self absorption and even depression?
CHARLESI think she comforts him because she loves him, but she knows that his feelings are not anywhere deep as her own despair. I mean, she knows actual despair.
CHARLESWell, I don't want to give anything away, but she's had a horrific childhood and adolescence.
REHMWell, when you say you don't want to give anything away, remember this is not simply a review of the book. This is a review of the book. So I am not fearful of giving too much away and, in fact, this book has been out since 2015. I'm so fascinated that it is said that this was the president's favorite book of 2015, Maureen.
CORRIGANI don't want to cast any aspersions against President Obama's truthfulness, but I really wonder, really? This book? It just -- again, it just -- as accomplished as it is, and again, it's not just the narrative, it's the language. A lot of the language is very precise and compelling, but there's not there, there at the end. And I wonder why someone would be -- well, I'm sitting with two people who are very drawn to this book and somehow carried away in a way that I'm clearly not.
BURNEYI was really compelled by the idea that Mathilde is leaving some of her past behind her and omitting it. There are things that Lotto never knows about her and I think it makes you ponder the question of whether that matters. You know, I think there is this interesting notion that, I don't know, I'd wager we all have things about us we would perhaps like to keep to ourselves and the question of whether you can reveal them and how.
REHMTayla Burney, she's producer and books editor for "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," and creator and curator of WAMU in your bookstore. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Our readers' review choice for this month is "Fates And Furies" by Lauren Groff, and if you've read the book, or if you have not, and have questions, I do invite your calls, comments, 800-433-8850. You can send an email to email@example.com. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook. Tayla Burney, read for us from this book.
BURNEYI will. This only requires a little bit of setup. This is right after the triumph turn as Hamlet we were just talking a moment ago, before the break, Lotto's senior at Vassar, and it's the moment when he and Mathilde meet.
BURNEY"He raised his arms (the fatal look up). In the doorway, suddenly, her. Tall, in silhouette, wet hair casting the hall light into a halo, stream of bodies on the stairs behind her. She was looking at him, though he couldn't see her face. She moved her head and there was half of it, strong and bright. High cheekbones, plush lips. Tiny ears. She was dripping from walking through the rain. He loved her first for the stun of her across this thump and dance. He had seen her before, he knew who she was. Mathilde, whatsername.
BURNEYBeauty like hers cast glimmers on the walls even across campus, phosphorescence on the things she touched. She'd been so far above Lotto -- so far above every person at the school -- she had become mythological. Friendless. Icy. She went weekends to the city; she was a model, hence the fancy clothes. She never partied. Olympian, elegant on her mount. Yes -- Mathilde Yoder. But his victory had made him ready for her tonight. Here she was for him. Behind him in the crashing storm, or maybe within him, a sizzle. He leapt into the grind of bodies, kneeing Samuel in the eye, crushing some poor small girl to the ground.
BURNEYLotto swam up out of the crowd and crossed the floor to Mathilde. She was six feet tall in bobby socks. In heels, her eyes were at his lip line. She looked up at him coolly. Already he loved the laugh she held in her, which nobody else would see. He felt the drama of the scene. Also, how many people were watching them, how beautiful he and Mathilde looked together. In a moment, he'd been made new. His past was gone. He fell to his knees and took Mathilde's hands to press them on his heart. He shouted up at her, 'Marry me.'
BURNEYShe threw back her head, baring her white snaky neck, and laughed and said something, her voice drowned. Lotto read those gorgeous lips as saying, 'Yes.' He'd tell this story dozens of times, invoking the black light, the instant love. All the friends over all the years, leaning in, secret romantics, grinning. Mathilde watching him from across the table, unreadable. Every time he told the story, he would say that she'd said, 'Sure.' Sure. Yes. One door closed behind him. Another, better, flung open."
CHARLESIt's just gorgeous, and I so -- I married my wife when I was 22. I was a bad actor in college who wanted to be a playwright. The whole -- we had not -- we were both virgins when we got married. The whole book just spoke to me page by page, and I adore it.
REHMReally? Oh, isn't that something.
CHARLESBut I shouldn't say it on the air.
CORRIGANToo late, Ron.
REHMI like that you said it exactly the way you said it. All right, what do you get about Mathilde from that reading?
BURNEYI think -- I think of Mathilde in that moment as Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity." She is the femme fatale even down to the -- is it the white, snaky neck. She is the serpent. She's -- she's a woman to watch out for and probably to run away from, but I don't -- I don't want to make too much of a connection between Ron and Lotto, but Lotto is the poor chump who's in her clutches. She's ready to strike. I mean, I think it is apt.
REHMShe's ready to strike, and yet, you know, she has this ethereal quality about her, as you say, her long neck, she's dressed in white, she is swan-like, but there is that word, swam, he swam toward her, not he rushed over, but he swam toward her. Do you like that word?
CHARLESI do, and I like the way it reduces everyone else in the room to just water, just nothing.
REHMYeah, it's really -- it's really interesting, and she is ready to accept him. Now there is another passage later on in the book, Tayla, this one from Mathilde's point of view.
BURNEYYes, and this is the morning after the party. They have spent the night together though not slept together, and she's sort of debating this. She's aware that he is hers for the taking, and she's at a diner trying to decide if she should in fact take him.
BURNEY"Mathilde knew how her life all would go if she let it. Already she knew that she and Lotto would be married if she seeded the thought in his brain. The question was if she could let him off the hook. Practically anyone would be better for him than she would be. She watched the waitress swaying behind the homicidal cook to grab a mug from the rack under the counter. She saw how she put her hands on his hips, how he bumped back against her with his rear, a little slapstick in joke, kiss of the hips.
BURNEYMathilde let the coffee and toast go cold. She paid, tipped far too much, and then she stood and walked into town and stopped at Cafe Aurora for cannoli and coffee and was at Lotto's room with two aspirin and a glass of water and the food when his eyelashes gave a little flutter, and he looked up from whatever dream, unicorns, leprechauns, merry forests bacchanals she imagined were dancing through his head to see her sitting beside him.
BURNEYOh, he said, I thought you couldn't be real. I thought you were the best dream I ever had. No dream, she said, I'm real, I'm here. He put her hand on his cheek and rested there against her. I think I'm dying, he whispered. You're severely hung over, and we're born dying, she said. And he laughed, and she held his warm, rough check, having committed to him in perpetuity.
BURNEYShe shouldn't have, she knew it, but her love for him was new, and her love for herself was old. And she was all she'd had for so very, very long. She was weary of facing the world alone. He had presented himself at the exact right time, her lifeline, although it would be better for him if he had married the kind of soft, godly woman she'd know soon enough his own mother wanted for him.
BURNEYThat Bridget girl would have made everybody happy. Mathilde was neither soft nor godly, but she made a promise that he would never know the scope of her darkness, that she would never show him the evil that lived in her, that he would only know of her a great love and light, and she wanted to believe that he did."
REHMYou know, that notion of keeping from him all the evil within her, evil, evil is such a strong word.
BURNEYIs she? She's not.
CHARLESShe's not evil.
BURNEYAnd it is, as Ron said, but, you know, you don't want to give too much away, but she has an experience as a child wherein a sibling dies, and she is blamed for it. And that is a very...
BURNEYThat, right, blaming a child, letting a child believe that they could be at fault for this terrible accident is an evil thing that she is forced to bear by those around her.
REHMNow is that lush writing, or is it over-writing?
CORRIGANWell, there's -- no, no, it's lush writing, and there's nothing wrong with it. Again, I think about James M. Cain and "Double Indemnity." If you look at the story rather than the movie, boy is that over-written, but it's -- it's fun. The plot propels you forward, and you watch these people because you really do want to see Barbara Stanwyck's character behave badly and see who's going to come out alive.
CORRIGANI mean, there is something of that in this book, where you wonder, well, who's going to be left standing at the end of this novel.
REHMBut from the first 20 pages or so, there's Mathilde sort of standing back, standing in the shadow, doing the dishes, cleaning up after everyone, and as you get a little farther into it, she seems to have lost weight, she seems not to be paying very much care to her appearance. Something's happening to her. Is it that what's happening or has happened in her life is catching up to her, Ron?
CHARLESWell as manipulative and controlling as she is, she gives everything to Lotto.
CHARLESIncluding her life. I mean, she endures humiliation, she gives up what fame she could've had. We understand that she's probably a very good playwright on her own. She could've had a modeling career. She couldn't done a lot of things with her life, all of which she buries so that Lotto can succeed and be happy. That, you know, takes a toll on oneself, I'm sure.
CHARLESAnd it's a story that, you know, millions of women have had for hundreds of years, they've given up everything for their husbands, they've stood in the shadows, they've been the power behind the throne. I mean, we have all kinds of clichés to explain marriages like this. I mean, they -- obviously the terms of this marriage are bizarre, but...
CHARLESThe actual structure of a woman standing back and helping her husband succeed is all too common.
REHMI understand that.
CORRIGANI think, Ron, you're making too much of a martyr figure, and I think she's feeding off of Lotto, and one of the reasons why she begins to lose weight, sicken, start to fade a bit, is the person she's feeding off of is no longer as nourishing as he was. And so that -- that marriage is -- there's something wrong at the center, and it starts to really sicken, and she starts to wilt because of it. She's more of a vampire figure to me than a martyr figure.
REHMInteresting, a vampire figure. How do you react to that, Tayla?
BURNEYIt's interesting. I mean, I think you do make a good point that she is sort of feeding off of him and sort of providing for him at the same time, and I -- I always go back to that idea, I mean, as Ron said, these are tales as old as time, right, and I do think the mythology that Groff weaves into this novel is really compelling, and it -- she sets the terms straight from the title, "The Fates and the Furies," and the Fates really is, you know, three goddesses who wove tapestries that told the destinies of men, right.
BURNEYSo we've got this woman who is suddenly weaving the life for her husband out of whole cloth, and, you know, the Furies are the female deities of vengeance, and, you know, and these infernal goddesses, and she's angry. Mathilde's very angry and working through a lot of that and trying to displace it but can't always do so, I think.
REHMAll right, this is a readers' review, and I do want to include as many of our readers as I can. The book, "Fates and Furies," a novel by Lauren Groff. Let's open the phones first to Miami, Ohio, Victoria, you're on the air.
VICTORIAGood morning, Diane.
VICTORIAHi, I'm sitting in a parking lot at the library, actually. I'm so glad that I'm able to get through. I really enjoy your show.
VICTORIAI really -- I felt like I had to call in because Maureen Corrigan represents my opinion on this book exactly. Although well-written, I just did not feel any connection to the characters. I almost describe this as a very quiet book that just simmers along the entire -- the entire length. At the end it left me wondering what was that all about. You know, but I love the recommendations that you give, and listening to the show it really made me want to go back and read it again.
VICTORIAMaybe I'm missing something. Maybe I could've used a couple of these people sitting beside me, helping me to analyze this. But it was -- it felt very quiet. I was waiting for something else more, something to tie this together, maybe in a more dramatic way. I don't know.
REHMWell Victoria, just to let you know, I must say I tend to be with you and Maureen on this book. It -- somehow I never got any depth from it, in the sense of reality. It was all quite -- you know, some fiction is so real, and this fiction just never, never really got to me. Go ahead, Ron.
CHARLESBut this is the kind of book you want for your book club, right. I mean, I hear from readers, too, and I heard from readers, and I don't often hear this, that they hated this book after I praised it. And I thought that's what makes it such a good book club book. You'll have good discussions. It won't be, you know, Fannie Flagg, oh everyone loves her. People like this book, and they hate this book.
REHMSo you got lots of reaction.
CHARLESI got some reaction and some negative reaction, which is very unusual.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If your reaction was negative, positive, or you'd like to know more about the book "Fates and Furies," give us a call, 800-433-8850. Tayla, what about the novel's form? What so took you about that?
BURNEYI think one of the things that propelled me through that first half with Lotto, because he is challenging, he's tough to love, you know, I think one of the things...
BURNEYHe is lazy, and everything comes up Lotto at the end of the day, right.
BURNEYThings always sort of end up going his way, and I think people like that are infuriating in real life, as they are in fiction sometimes. But what propelled me through that was this sort of Greek chorus-type voice that Groff uses. It's this voice that shows up in brackets and sort of gives almost an omniscient or sort of forward foreshadowing of what's coming. So I sort of -- what worked for me in the structure was that I knew it was building to something else, that we weren't going to just get Lotto's one note in the sort of shallow, perhaps, perspective of that character, though I did find parts of his story compelling, as well.
BURNEYI mean, I'm sort of intrigued by families who perhaps lose some fortune, or I just always find that great in fiction. So I found that really worked for me.
REHMAnd what about Rachel? Let's talk about Rachel, Lotto's younger sister.
CORRIGANLotto's younger sister Rachel really loves Mathilde. So there, too, you've got this sense of there's something about this woman. If she does feel that she's harboring evil at the core, she's very successful at putting a sunny face over it. And maybe Rachel is also there to persuade that there is something redeemable about Mathilde because Rachel herself is such an innocent. She's a pure character.
CORRIGANSo I think she helps complicate that vision of Mathilde.
REHMAll right, here's a call from St. Louis, Missouri. John, you're on the air.
JOHNHi, I was wondering about the names of the characters. If I'm not mistaken, Mathilde is a French form of the word mother, and mother is a nurturer, and it's been said there that she's vampirish. And Lotto, Lancelot, Lotto, I'm thinking of Sir Lancelot and Guinevere and the term -- the name Lotto seems to suggest taking a chance at winning something. I'm just wondering what your guests think about all this.
REHMI think those are pretty good analyses.
CORRIGANThey are, and as Tayla said before, this is not a realistic novel in the traditional sense. There's a heightened reality. There's a lot of references to myth and legend and of course starting with the names and the title.
REHMSo what about all these characters who are around them?
CHARLESThey never -- they never attain the sort of power that the two central characters do, and they become sort of tools at the end, as Mathilde goes about crushing them one by one in that horrendous series of her revenge fantasies. But I'd heard Lauren Groff talk about the book, and it's true she did not set out to write a work of domestic realism. The book is infused with this kind of mythic structure because that's what she was aiming for. So I don't think you can criticize it for falling short of that realistic standard.
REHMRon Charles, he is fiction editor for the Washington Post. We're going to take a short break now. If you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. We'd like to hear your thoughts on this month's readers' review.
REHMWelcome back. And we're going to go right back to our discussion of Lauren Groff's "Fates and Furies." I gather, Ron Charles, you had a chance to talk with Lauren Groff yourself.
CHARLESI did. Just on Saturday at the National Book Festival. I was able to interview her. And, of course, it was a wonderful experience for me 'cause I have adored all her books. One of the interesting things she said was about the structure of this book. I said, how did you keep this straight with this complicated plot and we find out the truth of what happens hundreds of pages later. She said she covered the walls of her room with posters where she would write what was happening then, what happens now, what does Lotto think, what does Mathilde think, how do they match up. And she went over this again and again and again.
REHMYeah, let's go…
CHARLES'Cause the book is such a puzzle when you think about its plot.
REHMLet's got to Rosalind in Onekama, Mich. You're on the air.
ROSALINDOh, good morning.
ROSALINDYes. I loved this book.
ROSALINDBoth the style and the writing. But I think what really I enjoyed about it was that the marriage is filled with their, you know, deceptions. They're annoyed at each other. They at times almost detest each other in the little way that you can in a marriage. But it's so obvious how much Lotto and Mathilde truly love each other. I think the love between them is so deep. And I think that's kind of the light that the author keeps shining on them that made me root for them.
ROSALINDAnd I think the fact that Rachel, the sister, and Sally, the aunt, are also these giving, loving people. I thought the author, she was trying to say that these people who are giving and sharing love, you know, they're why the world works. They're what makes life matter.
REHMThat's fascinating. I found that there love seemed to be expressed more sexually than romantically. I mean, they were so totally sexually active. Every other page or so, they were going to bed with each other. But I didn't get true passion.
BURNEYIt's interesting. I think they do have a very physical relationship and they clearly have very strong chemistry, but I've heard Groff say that the theme that sort of unites all her novels together is an idea of home. A sort of searching for a place or a person with whom you feel at home. And I think they do find that in each other, even if it doesn't come across as perhaps as romantic as some of the language would portray. But I do think they find in each other what they need.
REHMI think that word home came up a lot.
CORRIGANIt did come up a lot, especially with Mathilde looking for a home in Lotto. I just want to bring up another point. We all read a lot of books. And there seems to be something happening where these novels are coming out, where you get the wife's view and the husband's view. I…
REHMWell, John Rehm and I wrote a true story about a marriage…
CORRIGANThere you are. There you are.
REHM…called "Toward Commitment," but it was not fiction.
CORRIGANYes, yeah. Hannah Pittard, "Look at Me." Somewhat a suspense story. Like "Gone Girl," also the same kind of structure. All written by women. All novels in which you get this sort of moment in which the curtain is pulled back and you see some of the ugly realities beneath the surface. And I don't have any great big theories about why this is happening, but it seems to be this trend now that's happening in fiction.
CHARLESWe're tempted to think that the first section is the romance and the deception and the second section is the big reveal. But I think both these two people are deceived about themselves, as we all are in our self-impressions. We all carry a certain impression of ourselves that is, you know, a little manufactured.
REHMAnd someone sent in an email asking why Lotto does not express or be open about his bisexuality. Tayla?
BURNEYYeah, he, it's something that appears in college. He is going out with lots of different women. And then we hear some men. And it's sort of also mentioned in passing. And then later there's a relationship he has at an artist colony with this person he's working on a project with, Leo. And it is sort of a repressed thing that never really gets fully addressed and flushed out in the novel.
BURNEYAnd I think it goes to what Ron was just saying about this idea of manufactured self. I think that Lotto had an image of himself that he wanted to project, that he was this sort of stud on campus at Vassar. And, you know, he really does that. It's the story he tells himself and others. And he didn't want to reckon with it.
CHARLESIn one case he's accosted and abused in high school.
BURNEYYes, that's right. Yeah, absolutely.
CHARLESSo I don't think that counts as part of his own sexual expression. But he does sleep with other men. They aren't mentioned. It's not made a big -- but I think it's part of his sexuality, just, you know, overflows the brim of his character. He just has too much energy.
CORRIGANAnd I think he's afraid to pursue it because Mommy would be mad. I mean, there's a way in which…
REHMAnd you're talking about Antoinette or Mathilde?
CORRIGANNo. I'm talking about Mathilde. I find their relationship very much a mother/son type relationship.
CHARLESYeah, I get that, too.
REHMWhat is it that Antoinette so rejects about Mathilde?
CHARLESDon't you think she sees herself? I mean, she was a -- she was kind of a, you know, a nobody who went after a rich man. So she recognizes Mathilde instantly.
REHMAnd then a rich man dies.
BURNEYYeah, and we find out later that she has tailed Mathilde. She's sort of gathered some information on her. And she's…
CHARLESShe's just as sneaky.
BURNEY…discovered some things she doesn't approve of. And so it's not working for her and she rejects it completely.
REHMHow did you review "Gone Girl?"
CHARLESThat -- we did not review "Gone Girl." You know, how every year you miss on book and you will suffer for it for the rest of your life? That was the book that year.
REHMIt was a book I would prefer to have missed, frankly. All right. Let's go to Ann, in Wilmington, N.C. You're on the air.
ANNHi. And this is a book that I prefer to miss. I'm old enough to remember the column, "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" And it reminds me of that. And I -- my most important interest is family and marriage. I'm deeply interested in that. In fact, I'm a licensed psychotherapist. And I eagerly awaited this review because I thought it would make me really want to go out and buy this book. And it does not because I find -- it sounds like purple prose when you read it, over the top. I could not care less about the characters. And I'm sorry. Usually I am enthusiastic about every book that Diane talks about, but not this one.
REHMAll right. I accept that. What do you think, Ron?
CHARLESI wish he had lived, I mean, on so many levels. But I wish they had lived long enough to grow old together and to see who their marriage would have evolved. Because then it would have been an entirely different story. Once, you know, sexuality became less important to them and they moved on and they developed other interests of their own, I think we would have had a very different kind of story.
REHMAll right. Let me read to you, just so you know there are supporters out there. And email from Arlene. She says, "I love this complex, richly-layered novel. As a reader, I was intrigued by having to readjust everything I thought I knew about Lotto and Mathilde's marriage. It did make me a little uncomfortable wondering how much we truly know about the people we love and live with." That really is the fact here. Let's go to Lori in West Lafayette, Ind. You're on the air.
LORIGood morning. Long-time listener, Diane. Thanks for your show.
LORII really enjoyed the book quite a bit. I listened to it on -- as an audio book, rather than reading it. And to me it was like a cautionary tale, that you shouldn't get involved with people that have more problems than you do. And sometimes it's too late to find out those problems. You know.
LORIBut I just felt like it was just this big dual between narcissism and fatalism.
LORIAnd it was just gonna end the way it did, but I thought it was well written. I enjoyed the twists and turns and all of that. And, you know, it was a good story.
CHARLESI totally -- I sent it to my daughter, who's in New York, dating dancers and actors and playwrights. And I said, wait, you must read this book before you go any further.
REHMYou want to say something?
CORRIGANWell, I was just gonna recommend you should give your daughter the -- what is it -- "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.?"
CHARLESOh, yes, we definitely read that together.
CORRIGANBecause that's a much better cautionary tale.
CORRIGANAnd it's shorter, but it's -- I think -- I do think it's more psychologically astute.
CHARLESIt is an absolute weapon against narcissism. A total exposure.
REHMThat's an interesting phrase. Let's go to Lisa in Cary, N.C. Hi, you're on the air.
LISAHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
LISAI'm a first-time caller, long-time listener.
LISAAnd I simply love the stability of your show. And I'm gonna so miss it when you stop doing it.
LISASo I called in because I love this book, but I'm a clinical psychologist and I think that's why I liked it. Because the whole first half of the book, the characters were just not holding together for me. The unreality, that disconnect from reality that people talk about, I think that is what experience when they're dealing with what is commonly called sociopath, but the real appropriate term is psychopath. They just cannot feel that empathy. They really -- and that's -- also all that hyper-sexualization, that people just connect at that level, but not at a real emotional level. So when it got to the second part, I was telling the producer that I was almost relieved, because I was like, okay, now this makes sense.
REHMNow, I get it. Yeah.
LISANow, I get it. Now -- and people will describe -- like patients will describe if they've unfortunately been involved with somebody who's like this. They'll say it was like all of a sudden the mask fell off and you just saw the ugliness. And I felt like that's what that whole second part of the book was about.
BURNEYYeah, I think that's so compelling. And I appreciated that about this novel, too. This idea that, again, we have each of us something that we might like to hide. Right? And it can be something small. It could be that you got arrested for shoplifting when you were a teenager. It could be something huge, like you embezzled lots of money when you were a grownup. But, you know, I think that there are varying degrees of things you can or should move on from and sort of leave behind.
BURNEYAnd when you're in a relationship with someone, a committed relationship, it raises this interesting question of how much can, should, must you reveal and what happens when you start revealing those pieces or when you withhold them from that person. Because it is clear that Mathilde is really wresting with her childhood. And then, as Ron said earlier, her adolescent years and some decisions that she makes that she's perhaps not proud of, but that have gotten her where she is. And she is this calculating figure who is hiding and tamping down so much. And sort of working through it on her own in a way that's not healthy, that she could probably from someone like Lisa's help.
CHARLESI was just gonna say that.
CHARLESShe needs a therapist to help her understand that she's not evil.
BURNEYVery much so, yeah.
CORRIGANBut you're making it sound a little more realistic than it is. I mean, Mathilde is a completely different character in the second half, who has a whole other life history.
BURNEYIt's completely fantastic.
CORRIGAN…in the classical sense.
BURNEYAnd outlandish. And there is no real sense of reality in it. Yet, at the same time, I think we all do have these things that we keep under wraps. Here it's magnified.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And now to Boca Grande, Fla. You're on the air, Sandy.
SANDYHi. Thanks for taking my call.
SANDYAnd, Diane, I must say your voice sounds better than I've ever heard it.
REHMOh, thank you. I had treatment a couple of weeks ago.
SANDYWell, whatever they did, it's working.
SANDYMy comment on this book is I read it. I was ecstatic about every sentence. I thought the writing was gorgeous. I thought it was like it was song lyrics. Every -- almost every sentence the writing was gorgeous. And that's what stayed with me much longer than the story has. I read the book when it first came out and I don't remember the story that well. Except I do remember the characters. But what I remember about this book, but the most outstanding writing I've seen in a long time.
REHMThat's very interesting. You felt that same way, Tayla.
BURNEYAbsolutely. I mean, before this conversation I had to go back and sort of refresh myself on some of the plot points, but it does stick with you. Groff is clearly, clearly one of the masters of fiction at this moment, I think.
CHARLESShe's not yet 40.
BURNEYYeah, and she's under 40. And she's doing incredible things and she's playing with things. She's playing with illusion. She's doing things that, you know, almost feel like little Easter eggs hidden away for English majors and people who might catch them, but that work even if you don't. She's really incredible. Her work is compelling.
CORRIGANAnd I agree with that. I thought the language was also so precise, it was acrobatic. But I said in my review that a day after closing this novel, I could not remember the main characters' names. They so did not live for me.
CHARLESBut you're an expert on "The Great Gatsby."
CHARLESLook at that plot. That story is absolutely ridiculous.
CORRIGANI know, but we've got Nick Carraway's voice.
CHARLESBut it's the language, the language of that book carries the whole thing.
CORRIGANAnd Nick, Nick carries the whole thing. Nick's love for Gatsby, which is so palpable.
REHMTell me about the cover of this book.
BURNEYI love this cover. This book is from Riverhead. And I think they have one of the best art departments in publishing.
BURNEYThey've done a number of really beautiful novels. Chang-rae Lee's "On Such a Full Sea," which I think, Diane, you've talked to that author. There's Marlon James "Brief History of Seven Killings," which is a pretty stunning cover as well. And this cover is, I think it encapsulates a lot. I mean, we were talking earlier about the word "swam." It's this tumultuous sea…
REHMSure, sure, yeah.
BURNEY…that we have here that sort of hints at what's to come. This idea that there is turmoil, that it is not a calm sea that we are setting into. I think it's just a great graphic representation of what's inside. And I think they do a really beautiful job there.
REHMI think we should say, and should point out, that this was a finalist for the National Book Award. So when you read it, Maureen, you closed the book and you thought to yourself…
CORRIGANLike one of your callers said earlier, okay, what was that all about? I, architecturally beautiful, language is lovely, there's no there there.
REHMAnd you, Ron?
CHARLESI just sat there and wept for a while, honestly.
REHMYou sat there and wept?
CHARLESI just thought it was absolutely gorgeous.
REHMAnd you, Tayla?
BURNEYI thought I need a drink, you know, because that last…
CHARLESI can't drink, see, so…
BURNEY…the last 20 pages are so -- are just propelling you to this end. And I had this anxiety of is she going to stick the landing. And I sort of felt satisfied by the end.
CHARLESOh, that last line.
CHARLESWhich brings us right back to the passage you read early in the book, is perfect.
REHMRon Charles, he's fiction editor for The Washington Post, Tayla Burney is producer and books editor for "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," creator/curator of "WAMU in your Bookstore," and Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air," author of "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures." Thank you all for a beautiful discussion.
BURNEYThanks so much, Diane.
CORRIGANThank you, Diane.
CHARLESOh, it's great fun.
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