Some critics say that the realisation of this novel didn't live up to its architectural plans, that the second half is weaker than the first. It may or may not be the first novel to attempt this structure, but it's the first I've run across, and I was enthralled. It's the story of a marriage, narrated by an anonymous third person but from the vantage point of the husband in the first half and the wife in the second.
The husband, Lotto (short for Lancelot) Satterwhite is a struggling playwright when the story opens, gradually becoming financially successful, with what appears to be the unwavering support of his wife, Mathilde. Lotto is the golden boy whose mother cut him off when he married Mathilde. In a conversation with Leo Sen, a composer, he contrasts his married life with Leo's celibate one, especially in terms of creativity.
“I hated my violin as a boy,” he said, “until my father made me compose a score as a match was happening on the telly. Tottenham, Manchester, our boys losing. And suddenly, as I was playing, everything that I had felt so deeply without music deepened even more. The dread, the joy. And that was it for me, re-creating that moment was all I wanted to do. I called the composition Audere Est Facere.” He laughed.Mathilde, we later find out, is concealing much about her past, including her childhood in France, when her name was not Mathilde at all but Aurélie. The sensual imagery in this passage is stupendous.
“To dare is to do?'” Lotto said.
“Tottenham’s motto. Not a bad way to be an artist, in fact.”
“Your life seems simple,” Lancelot said.
Leo Sen said, “My life is beautiful.” Lancelot saw that it was. He was enough of a lover of forms to understand the allure of such a strict life, how much internal wildness it could release. Leo waking to dawn over the cold seabird ocean, the fresh berries and goat-milk yogurt for breakfast, the tisanes of his own herbs, blue crabs in the black tide pools, going to bed with the whipping winds and rhythm of waves against hard rock. Lettuce shoots glowing in the south-facing windows. The celibacy, the temperate, moderate life that Leo lived, at least on the outside, in his state of constant cold. And the feverish musical life within.
“I knew you’d be an ascetic,” Lancelot said. “I just thought you’d be a wild-bearded one who speared fish and wore a loincloth. In a saffron-colored turban.” He smiled.
“On the other hand, you,” Leo said, “were always dissolute. It’s clear in your work. Privilege is what lets you take risks. Life of oysters and champagne and houses on the beach. Coddled. Like the precious egg you are.”
Lancelot felt stung, but said, “True. If I had my druthers, I’d be three hundred fifty pounds of jollity and fun. But my wife keeps me to heel. Makes me exercise every day. Keeps me from drinking in the morning.”
“Ah,” said Leo, gazing at his own enormous hands. “So, there’s a wife.” The way he said it. Well. It made the ideas Lancelot had about Leo reshuffle themselves once more in his head.
“There’s a wife,” Lancelot said.
Aurélie’s father was quiet, loved few things. Putting stone on stone, the wine he made in his garage, his hunting dog he called Bibiche, his mother who’d survived World War II by black-marketing blood sausages, and his daughter. She was spoiled, a happy and singing girl. But when Aurélie was three, the new baby came. He was a fretful and screaming creature. Still, he was cooed over, that wizened turnip in blankets. Aurélie watched from under a chair, burning. Colic arrived in the baby, and the house went piebald with vomit. Aurélie’s mother walked around as if shattered. Four aunts, smelling of butter, came to help. They gossiped viciously and their brother showed them his grapes and the aunts chased Bibiche from the house with a broom. When the baby at last began to crawl, he got into everything, and the father had to build a gate at the top of the stairs. Aurélie’s mother cried during the day in her bed when the children were supposed to be asleep. She was so tired. She smelled of fish. The baby liked best to crawl into Aurélie’s bed and suck his thumb and twirl her hair, the snot in his nose catching so it sounded as if he were purring.Groff writes for the nose. There are so many olfactory descriptions in this book, congruous and not.
There were thousands of people at Lotto’s funeral. She knew he’d been loved, and by strangers, too. But not this excess. All these people she didn’t know were lining the sidewalk, keening. O! great man. O! playwright of the bougie.It's Mathilde who is the novel's nose. As an anosmic reader, I find her associations fascinating.
She rode at the head of a shining line of black limos like the head raven in a convocation of blackbirds. Her husband had moved people and, in so moving, had become their Lancelot Satterwhite, too. Something of him lived in them. Was not hers. Was now theirs. It felt unhygienic, this flood of snot...
Too much coffee breath in her face. All that assaultive perfume. She hated perfume. It was a cover for poor hygiene or for body shame. Clean people never aspired to the floral.
Funny, she thought, looking over the banks of snapdragons to the river. Her mother had smelled of cold and scales, her father of stone dust and dog. She imagined her husband’s mother, whom she had never met, had a whiff of rotting apples, although her stationery had stunk of baby powder and rose perfume. Sallie was starch, cedar. Her dead grandmother, sandalwood. Her uncle, Swiss cheese. People told her that she smelled like garlic, like chalk, like nothing at all. Lotto, clean as camphor at his neck and belly, like electrified pennies at the armpit, like chlorine at the groin. She swallowed. Such things, details noticed only on the edges of thought, would not return.The jacket copy for this book says, "...the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets." I think maybe the key to a great novel about a marriage is its secrets. I don't see Lotto and Mathilde as poster children for matrimony, but they are the stuff of marvellous fiction. A bit like the late John F. Kennedy, Jr and his ethereal golden wife, Carolyn Bessette, I imagine. Stunning to look at, but don't ask too many questions.