When Jon and I first became friends he gave me three books. The Shipping News by Annie Proux, One Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and Alice Hoffman’s Blackbird House. I had already read two of them, Jon already knew what I liked. Since then he continued to keep me in books and now I usually have three deep to choose from. So I keep up on the new releases.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Goff has gotten a lot of publicity, being called the best book of the year. It’s the story of a marriage, the first part of the book from the husband, Lotto’s point of view, the second part from the wife Matilde’s. He’s a much loved boy from a wealthy family who eventually becomes a playwright after his acting career fails. She has a sad and dark past being shipped from one family member to another, just to begin with. They marry and live out the age old story of the artist and his supportive, behind the scenes, wife.
I like books about the complexities of relationships, where I get to know the characters and I can connect to them one way or another. Like listening to music and looking at art, I read with my heart first and my brain second. I don’t want to have to know the history of art to look at a painting and appreciate it. If it does move me, I may then be curious enough to want to know more about it, then the history becomes interesting to me. And it’s the same with books. I need a good story, with complex characters to make me care.
I got more than half way through Fates and Furies, when I started to think that I must not be smart enough to appreciate the book. It was laced with references to Greek Mythology and Shakespeare, both of which I have only a layman’s exposure to. But the story of Lotto and Matilde seemed so unreal and hard to relate to that I assumed I was missing something. Like it was the contemporary retelling of these classics and because I don’t know them “Fates and Furies” was lost on me.
The story is filled with endless drinking and sex to the point where I found it boring. And the idea that these two people could actually be in love, which is what the reader is being told throughout the book, makes no sense to me. When we get to Matilde’s part of the story we see Lotto never really even knew her and it seems to me, there’s no way a woman like her could have any respect or love for a self absorbed, oblivious man like him. There are so many secrets and lies between the two of them and between them and their friends and family I found it completely unbelievable that any of the relationships could last as long as they did.
There was some really beautiful writing in it. And I certainly felt like the characters were well rounded. But I don’t know what I was supposed to take from it all. I didn’t like anything about either Lotto or Matilde, or most of the other characters in the book. (unlike a character like Elizabeth Stout’s Olive Kitteridge, who as unlikable as she was, I still had empathy for) And the more I read the nastier and stranger the story in Fates and Furies got, it seem more like a psychological thriller.
Yesterday morning I was telling Jon how I felt like I wasn’t getting the book. He pulled up the NY Times review and read it out loud. It seemed to be mostly about the literary aspects of the book. It’s references to the Greek Classics, structure, literary devices and things that have no meaning for me. Then we read some of the reviews on Amazon written by well read and obviously intelligent people. They spoke highly of some of the literary aspects of the book but also expressed some of the same problems I had with the book.
So I guess in a way, I was right. I don’t have enough of the kind of knowledge to appreciate this book. But then that’s not what I’m looking for in a book. I want a story I can relate to, something that makes me understand someone else’s point of view. I want it to take me somewhere I haven’t been before and reveal some truths about our world. And I want to be able to read and understand a book without having to have a degree in literature.
And there are plenty of books out there for me. I’ve already read a lot of them already. Before Fates and Furies, I read Margaret Atwood’s new book The Heart Goes last, which I loved. It’s set in the near future when the world has become such a dangerous place that people have to decide between security and freedom. It also revolves around the marriage of the main characters, (who I can’t say I really liked but who were very human) has lots of sex and strange things going on. But it spoke directly to me about timely issues and age old fears, needs and desires. I got it and I enjoyed the story along the way.
Next I’ll be reading Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Jon just wrote a review of it on his blog, while I was writing this. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but after talking to Jon about it, I don’t want to not read it.
I see there’s still a part of me that thinks if I don’t like a book, especially one that got a great review in the NY Times like Fates and Furies did, that it means I’m just not smart enough to understand it. It wasn’t until just a year or two ago that I would have to finish a book, even if I didn’t like it. I always thought I was missing something. That there was something wrong with me for not liking the book. But talking to Jon about it and reading the Amazon reviews, I see that it’s not that I’m not smart, it’s that I want to read stories that touch me. I don’t want it to be an intellectual exercise.
And just because a book is reviewed and revered by certain people and institutions doesn’t mean I have to feel the same about it. Maybe I can appreciate its importance, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily want to read it. Just like I can appreciate what the Beetles did for music, but there’s only a handful of Beetle songs I want to listen to. I’ve been reading all kinds of books for a long time and I know when I like a book and when I don’t and I usually know why. So reading Fates and Furies did do something for me. It reinforced in me the idea that I’m not stupid because I didn’t like it and to trust myself a little more.
12 thoughts on “Reading “Fates and Furies””
I really disliked it too, and have sworn off books that are over-hyped in the NY Times or elsewhere. I tracked some of the literary references, but – honestly – the writing just seemed pretentious to me. Taste is such an individual thing anyway; at my age, I’m starting to try to give myself permission to stop reading something that’s not hitting the spot. The Goldfinch was another one in this category. And The Paying Guests. All breathlessly hyped by the NYT and NPR (including the Fresh Air reviewer Maureen Corrigan). Life’s too short and there are so many fabulous books to read.
I liked both The Paying Guest and Goldfinch Suzanne. I think it just shows how it’s such an individual thing.
I felt the same way about the book, Maria. I didn’t finish it because I wasn’t enjoying it. Just glad I got it from the library. 🙂
I see I’m hardly alone in this Kim.
Good thing you looked up the reviews, Maria and had enough sense to know you weren’t connecting with the characters or storyline and why. I just finished ‘reading’ The Rocks, by Peter Nichols (“A beautifully crafted love story set against an idyllic backdrop of ocean breezes and lemon groves. Nichols expertly weaves a tale that stretches across decades and generations, giving us a unique and unforgettable cast of characters.” —Amazon review). Forgive me but the book seemed to centre on generations fornicating on the coast of the Mediterranean in this book. Seemed to me I’d led a pretty unsophisticated life when all this was going on, on The Rocks. Amazon has given it great reviews. I was totally bored with the book.
SandyP in Canada
I’ll keep away from that one Sandy.
Thank you Maria, for taking the time to convey something that has often puzzled me as well. My husband and l enjoy very much the activity of reading, whether it involves non-fiction, articles, or novels of any kind (historical, Sci-Fi, etc.) But it seems that l know exactly what books speak to him, but it does not work the other way around, he hardly ever recommends a book to me that l end up reading beginning to end. We’re very close, have been in love with each other since 1977 and we spend as much time together as we possibly can. Yet, when it comes to books, we simply do not look for the same things. We used to have long conversations about this, but have not been able to figure out this dissonance in reading materials. I feel like you, the story has to speak to me, touch me, move me, stay with me. There is only so much time, and far too many books, so l figure one has to choose carefully – and no longer work my way through books that fail to engage me, because l know someone who will like it sitting right next to me! 🙂 Nothing to do with intellect and everything to do with personal taste, just like any piece of art, really…by the way, he also liked Atwood’s latest book…hmmmm….
It is like looking at Art Sabina. I’ve come to terms with it with art, but I’m just seeing it with the books.
This topic makes me laugh out loud at myself!! I’ve always forced (!!?) myself to finish a book even if I thought it belonged on the compost pile. I must be a masochist because after clawing my way through Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections”, detailing a story of a family I couldn’t stand, I then picked up his next book “Freedom”. All the reviews were stellar and gushing! What was I possibly missing; too stupid to grasp?? The writing may be remarkable but if story doesn’t touch me in some way, there’s always a load of laundry that ‘speaks louder to me’.
Thanks for your take on this one.
Oh Cheryl, I won’t go near Jonathan Franzen. Jon warned me off his books. Connie at our bookstore has a pile of his latest book. It’s not selling. Apparently there are many of us who feel the same way.
Interesting, Maria, about The Paying Guests and The Goldfinch. Individual people, and indicvidual books – yes – and individual timing. I can think of two books that didn’t appeal to me when I first picked them up, but then at another time and another try, I was head over heels. I liked many aspects of The Goldfinch, but felt she needed a good editor. It could have been 2/3 as long and a lot more consistent. The writing in The Paying Guests reminded me of the writing of my all time least favorite book: An American Tragedy by Dreiser. There was a lot that was interesting and engaging about the story, but there was sort of a breathless, repetitive quality to the writing that bugged me. Arcadia, a previous book by Groff, was much better than Fates and Furies, IMO. Somehow it’s hard to quit a book in the middle though! Maybe you can tell I’m starved for a book group!
Suzanne, Jon has a book group on Facebook. It’s a great place to write about and discuss books. If you’re interested I can send you a link. I agree about Goldfinch. it did drag on at points, but Paying Guests had me in it’s grip. I couldn’t put it down. I’ve never read any Dreiser and I did like Arcadia much better than Fates and Furies, but there was something about that book that bothered me too. Now I can’t even remember what it was. That one may have been more about me and where I was at the time than the book.