by Lauren Groff

Cover image

Publisher: Riverhead Books
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 0-698-40513-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 260

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Marie is a royal bastardess, a product of rape no less, and entirely out of place in the court in Westminster, where she landed after being kicked off her mother's farm. She had run the farm since her mother's untimely death, but there was no way that her relatives would let her inherit. In court, Marie is too tall, too ugly, and too strange, raised by women who were said to carry the blood of the fairy Mélusine. Eleanor of Aquitaine's solution to her unwanted house guest is a Papal commission. Marie is to become the prioress of an abbey.

I am occasionally unpleasantly reminded of why I don't read very much literary fiction. It's immensely frustrating to read a book in which the author cares about entirely different things than the reader, and where the story beats all land wrong.

This is literary historical fiction set in the 12th century. Marie is Marie de France, author of the lais about courtly love that are famous primarily due to their position as early sources for the legends of King Arthur. The lais are written on-screen very early in this book, but they disappear without any meaningful impact on the story. Matrix is, instead, about Shaftesbury Abbey and what it becomes during Marie's time as prioress and then abbess, following the theory that Marie de France was Mary of Shaftesbury.

What I thought I was getting in this book, from numerous reviews and recommendations, was a story of unexpected competence: how a wild, unwanted child of seventeen lands at a dilapidated and starving abbey, entirely against her will, and then over the next sixty years transforms it into one of the richest abbeys in England. This does happen in this book, but Groff doesn't seem to care about the details of that transformation at all.

Instead, Matrix takes the mimetic fiction approach of detailed and precise description of a few characters, with all of their flaws and complexities, and with all of the narrative's attention turned to how they are feeling and what they are seeing. It is also deeply, fully committed to a Great Man (or in this case a Great Woman) view of history.

Marie is singular. The narrative follows her alone, she makes all the significant decisions, and the development of the abbey is determined by her apparently mystical visions. (In typical mimetic fashion, these are presented as real to her, and the novel takes no position on whether that reality is objective.) She builds spy networks, maneuvers through local and church politics, and runs the abbey like her personal kingdom. The tiny amount of this that is necessarily done by other people is attributed to Marie's ability to judge character. Other people's motives are simply steamrolled over and have no effect.

Maddeningly, essentially all of this happens off-screen, and Groff is completely uninterested in the details of how any of it is accomplished. Marie decides to do something, the narrative skips forward a year, and it has happened. She decides to build something, and then it's built. She decides to collect the rents she's due, the novel gestures vaguely at how she's intimidating, and then everyone is happily paying up. She builds spy networks; who cares how? She maneuvers through crises of local and church politics that are vaguely alluded to, through techniques that are apparently too uninteresting to bother the reader with.

Instead, the narrative focuses on two things: her deeply dysfunctional, parasocial relationship with Eleanor, and her tyrannical relationship with the other nuns. I suspect that Groff would strongly disagree with my characterization of both of those narratives, and that's the other half of my problem with this book.

Marie is obsessed with and in love with Eleanor, a completely impossible love to even talk about, and therefore turns to courtly love from afar as a model into which she can fit her feelings. While this is the setup for a tragedy, it's a good idea for a story. But what undermined it for me is that Marie's obsession seems to be largely physical (she constantly dwells on Eleanor's beauty), and Eleanor is absolutely horrible to her in every way: condescending, contemptuous, dismissive, and completely uninterested. This does change a bit over the course of the book, but not enough to justify the crush that Marie maintains for this awful person through her entire life.

And Eleanor is the only person in the book who Marie treats like an equal. Everyone else is a subordinate, a daughter, a charge, a servant, or a worker. The nuns of the abbey prosper under her rule, so Marie has ample reason to justify this to herself, but no one else's opinions or beliefs matter to her in any significant way. The closest anyone can come to friendship is to be reliably obedient, perhaps after some initial objections that Marie overrules. Despite some quite good characterization of the other nuns, none of the other characters get to do anything. There is no delight in teamwork, sense of healthy community, or collaborative problem-solving. It's just all Marie, all the time, imposing her vision on the world both living and non-living through sheer force of will.

This just isn't entertaining, at least for me. The writing might be beautiful, the descriptions detailed and effective, and the research clearly extensive, but I read books primarily for characters, I read characters primarily for their relationships, and these relationships are deeply, horribly unhealthy. They are not, to be clear, unrealistic (although I do think there's way too much chosen one in Marie and way too many problems that disappear off-camera); there are certainly people in the world with dysfunctional obsessive relationships, and there are charismatic people who overwhelm everyone around them. This is just not what I want to read about.

You might think, with all I've said above, that I'm spoiling a lot of the book, but weirdly I don't think I am. Every pattern I mention above is well-established early in the novel. About the only thing that I'm spoiling is the hope that any of it is somehow going to change, a hope that I clung to for rather too long.

This is a great setup for a book, and I wish it were written by a fantasy author instead of a literary author. Perhaps I'm being too harsh on literary fiction here, but I feel like fantasy authors are more likely to write for readers who want to see the growth sequence. If someone is going to change the world, I want to see how they changed the world. The mode of fantasy writing tends to think that what people do (and how they do it) is as interesting or more interesting than what they feel or what they perceive.

If this idea, with the exact same level of (minor) mysticism and historic realism, without added magic, were written by, say, Guy Gavriel Kay or Nicola Griffith, it would be a far different and, in my opinion, a much better book. In fact, Hild is part of this book written by Nicola Griffith, and it is a much better book.

I have seen enough people rave about this book to know that this is a personal reaction that is not going to be shared by everyone, or possibly even most people. My theory is that this is due to the different reading protocols between literary fiction readers and fantasy readers. I put myself in the latter camp; if you prefer literary fiction, you may like this much better (and also I'm not sure you'll find my book reviews useful). I may be wrong, though; maybe there are fantasy readers who would like this. I will say that the sense of place is very strong and the writing has all the expected literary strengths of descriptiveness and rhythm.

But, sadly, this was not at all my thing, and I'm irritated that I wasted time on it.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-11-05

Last modified and spun 2022-11-06