Their love is tremendous, consuming, obdurate, yet vulnerable to fate—an opera awaiting a stage. Still, this novel is about more than the growing pains within a marriage. There is “terrific love in it. Heat and magic.” Yet, the sum of the book is “far greater than its sum of love.” This novel is about that delicate space where love, art, self, and survival exist together—about the carbon-life of love, theater, and the womens movement.
In Lotto’s version of how they met she says yes.
In Mathilde’s version she says no, which becomes sure, then an emphatic yes—because she does love him, or at least lust for him and his life and all that he represents. Mathilde hides longing inside her beauty and she couldn’t even dream him up: “Innocent, charming, funny, loyal. Rich. Lancelot Satterwhite; Lotto.”
Lotto’s privileged but lonely childhood, his delicate relationship with his society-minded mother, the way he catapults into literary fame only to reinvent himself in the face of critics and failures, even his refuge in alcohol, scream of of the Golden Age of Theater—Albee, Williams, Miller and O’Neill. Yet, as a playwright in the 1990s, Lotto is part of a generation of activist playwrights and actors.
His true genius involves transforming what is interesting about someone into something beautiful. He first employs this trick for sex, then in his work, distorted so what is interesting becomes ugly to the point of reaching a different, truer, beauty. “He was a born storyteller,” Mathilde declares of her husband. “He recast reality into a different kind of truth.”
Lotto is not a narcissist exactly, but he lives in the moment, his moment. Raised in his own greatness, he never questions how or why but simply expects and accepts, basks. He prefers women, mostly (Mathilde most of all) and enjoys the human form—his “animal magnetism is real; it spreads through bodily convection.” Despite Lotto’s magnetism, Mathilde is the more intriguing of the two, her obsessions darker yet somehow more sympathetic.
Much remains unspoken in marriage, or spoken but rewritten out of compassion, some sense of preservation or fear of confronting self. Mathilde enjoys seeing herself through Lotto’s eyes, at least initially. The way he makes his actors, his acolytes, fans, and the other women feel their own beauty reverberating from him, Lotto transforms what is interesting about Mathilde—flawed—into something beautiful. Into someone loved. To live as someone sees us however, is to render ourselves invisible.
The 1990s is a difficult decade for women, not just Mathilde. After two hundred years of feminism women can vote, own land, earn a degree, work, and (mostly) have legal access to birth control. Yet, we are vulnerable to a deception falsely claiming to be feminism—women can have everything, and those who don’t are faulty. Women work outside the home, run a household, and are still paid less than men. Mathilde represents a generation of women caught on the cliff of feminism—old enough to remember what the movement is about, but young enough to witness the hidden cost for this freedom. Mathilde may be a successful wife, but longs for a creative life of her own and keenly feels she has failed womanhood by subjugating her creative self to her husband.
She also represents the next generation of girls, raised with hyper-sexuality as a symbol of strong womanhood, who are vulnerable to relationships based on sexual connections which can make women feel replaceable—even create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mathilde feels less threatened by a potential physical affair than by the literary genius of another taking her place in Lotto’s affections—by a woman who is an artist in her own right, and not just a wife. Mathilde is a kitten and a lioness, a woman with smarts and political opinions, and yet a wife, one of the “midnight elves of marriage.”
Groff’s writing is by turns lean and electric, digressive and in the moment. She infects readers with the passion of Mathilde and Lotto, not just for each other, but for art, food, sex—life—making readers vulnerable to the seismic shift halfway through the novel. This is one of the best books I read this summer and I haven’t stopped raving about Lotto and Mathilde since I finished. The story charts the known and unexpected while defying all expectations—Groff captures lightning in a jar.
The love between Mathilde and Lotto is more than an opera. Their love is pure physics—a star burning across the vastness of space which we perceive as glittering light but, from another perspective, is already gone.