Within the scope of Lauren Groff's writing, fictional representations of places significant to the author feature heavily. Take, for instance, New York. The eponymous setting of her debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, is representative of her hometown of Cooperstown. Groff revisits Templeton in "Lucky Chow Fun," the first story in her excellent collection, Delicate Edible Birds, and again explores the idyll of upstate New York in her second novel, Arcadia. In each of these stories, Groff challenges the concept of home as a monolith – it is often more than the sum of its parts, after all – and articulates the unsettling notion that one can cultivate intimate knowledge of a place and still be ignorant of its secret facets.
At the outset of her latest novel, Fates and Furies, readers are drawn into a linen-textured vintage-postcard version of Florida, one overflowing with lush tropical splendor. This is the world into which Lancelot "Lotto" Satterwhite is born, heir to a bottled-water fortune. His mother, a former Weeki Wachee mermaid, births him in the eye of a hurricane. From the moment Lotto arrives (flaxen, resplendent), he is fawned over.
"I wanted the character of Lotto to be Florida in human form: hot, tall, sexy, sunny, but with some darkness and mystery at his center," says Groff in an email exchange. "I ascribe to the idea that geography is formative for character, in the way that the form of a poem pulls the matter of the poem out of it. A villanelle will almost always be about loss, a sonnet lends itself to love; hilly, cold Upstate New York lends itself to a certain reserve and clarity, and the long flat heat of Florida sparks in me a certain narrative wildness."
In college, Lotto meets Mathilde Yoder, a model with (he believes) no friends or family. Within weeks, they are married, and he is disinherited. What follows is an account of a decades-long partnership rife with tensions and secrets but, in this telling, successful. The first portion of the book, "Fates," is told from Lotto's perspective; the second portion, "Furies," from Mathilde's point of view.
In presenting Lotto's story first, Groff sets up a tale of male privilege and narcissistic naiveté with the express goal of dismantling it in the second half of the book. Mathilde's disposition, so tragically taciturn in the eyes of her husband, is actually comprised of a secret, furious refusal to give in to the oppression of the high road.
Groff says, "I always wanted the perspectives to be evenly matched – Lotto gets to go first, and those who study storytelling know that the first person to tell a story has the privileged position, and his story will have greater weight because he has gone first – because one of the ideas the book plays with is the idea that there's no such thing as a single story, but that most stories are composites, made up of layers."
So too does Groff dismantle the Floridian Shangri-La of Lotto's youth. Upon returning home after 20 years away, he finds a surreal dreamscape full of nightmarish images: the sky "a strange boil, purplish black ... dunes ragged with vines and palmetto and snake holes. This Florida was not Florida. More strange than true."
Groff, who now lives in Gainesville, has spent much of the last month touring, lecturing and giving readings in support of the novel. On Saturday, Oct. 8, she'll make a stop in Orlando for Burrow Press' Functionally Literate event at the Orlando Museum of Art. Despite residing in Florida for a decade, she says she's never quite been at ease calling it home.
"[I am] still grappling with the state in many ways, but I can say that the natural world is what I love the most about this place, and, paradoxically, what I will never consider normal: There are many things here that want to kill you, and the heat and humidity mean that this place was never meant for humans. Even the native plants are spiky. It is excellent for writing fiction – you never want to be too comfortable."
You never want your reader to be too comfortable, either, whether in examining the transgressive nature of love or the idea of home. Both concepts tend to warp – like something left out in the elements of a simultaneously harsh and dazzling landscape – with time.