Catching Up to Stonehenge

Every December(ish), I look at critics’ lists of the year’s best books, and add a bunch to my semi-official “To Read” list. Novels making the most recent cut include Delicious Foods, City on Fire, and The Incarnations. I am currently 39% through one of them: Lauren Groff’s Fates and FuriesI bought this book because of the many glowing reviews I read. For example, The New York Times calls it “a novel of extraordinary and genuine complexity…Fates and Furies is an unabashedly ambitious novel that delivers — with comedy, tragedy, well-deployed erudition and unmistakable glimmers of brilliance throughout.”

Wow. Who wouldn’t want to read that?! Even President Obama called it his favorite book of 2015.

Image courtesy of New York Times/Anthony Russo.
Image courtesy of New York Times/Anthony Russo.

And I am enjoying it quite a bit. It’s lyrical, poetic, and beautifully written. Take, for instance, this description of a tree:

His wife carried their picnic basket to the edge of the lake under a willow so old it no longer wept, just sort of bore its fate with thickened equanimity.

The whole story is chock full of similar turns of phrase, which is great.

But.

I do have one minor quibble. Or not so minor, as it requires a rather hefty suspension of disbelief: people in real life do not talk like the characters in this novel. Check out this too-witty exchange between the couple at the center of the story.

“Medieval Madonna,” he said. “In gouache. Haloed in gold leaf. Thank you.”
“Happy birthday, friend of my heart,” she said.
“It was happy. It is. That opera changed me.”
“I thought it would,” she said. “I’m glad it did.”

Come on. Nobody is this clever. I had to look up gouache because I had no idea what it even meant. [Opaque watercolor paint. Can be applied in solid colors, allowing the artist to paint in layers from dark to light.] Don’t even ask me to try to pronounce it. Every exchange they have sounds like it’s coming from classically trained actors on a stage, reciting well-rehearsed lines constructed with precision by an English literature major slash poet (we can probably add a second slash, coffee barista, because homeboy’s gotta pay the bills somehow).

On my birthday last year, Tara made a dig about my advancing age (“you’re catching up to Stonehenge, babe”) and told me my t-shirt clashed with my shoes so I’d better change before we headed over to my parents’ house for lasagna. There was nary a mention of haloes or Madonna (either the religious icon or the Material Girl) – and, for that matter, we did not attend a life-changing (or any sort of) opera or drink champagne and eat fancy cheese in a field of gold adjacent to an old farmhouse, as our protagonists did.

They say truth is stranger than fiction, but I’ve gotta tell you, I think it’s the other way around.

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8 thoughts on “Catching Up to Stonehenge

  1. I know what gouache is. I even know how to pronounce it! (goo-wash). But that’s only because I work at an art school, and one of the guys who runs the Painting department totally has the hots for me. Or just thinks he does, because I’m convinced that he’s actually gay but doesn’t know it.

    I might have to pick up that book though.

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    1. Look at you with your first-rate vocabulary! I’m impressed. I’d never heard the term before. I probably would have pronounced it “gauche” and ended up offending my poor wife by mistakenly calling her unsophisticated.

      It really is a great book, by the way.

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  2. Here I am completely disappointed. I felt for sure that if we ever met, you and I would engage in similar discourse on topics as transformative and illuminating.

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  3. Mark, the passage (dialogue) you shared from that book reminded me of how I felt whenever I had to read a play by William Shakespeare. And even though I was a trained theater actor, I never quite acquired a tasted for anything Shakespeare because I couldn’t stand how the characters spoke. In fact, I couldn’t even understand them. Almost like hearing another language and not knowing what it means.

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  4. I must remember that line “You’re catching up to Stonehenge.” LOL When Joe turned 30, he was freaking out about it, and so I told him “Yep, you’ve got one foot on the grave and the other on the banana peel!” Hehehehe

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