“Matrix,” by Lauren Groff




Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Gainesville, Florida, author Lauren Groff is a rising star in the world of fiction writers. She has written six award-winning books, most recently the novel Matrix (Riverhead Books, 2021) and the short story collection Florida (Riverhead Books, 2018). These two works showcase the author’s breadth and depth with characters, moods, and settings that couldn’t be more different. While the novel, set in medieval times, ultimately acquires a hopeful tenor, the short stories project a more troubling, disconcerting ambiance suited to the modern age.

Groff has won the Story Prize, the ABA Indies’ Choice Award, and France’s Grand Prix de l’Héroïne; was twice a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and the Kirkus Prize; and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Prize, the Southern Book Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Prize. During her career, she has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. Her work has been translated into over thirty languages.

Groff takes female empowerment to a whole new level in Matrix. Grand and mythic in scope, the novel has been named a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction. The story, which takes place in twelfth century England and is based on the lives of historical figures, will please readers who enjoy the fiction of Hilary Mantel, Ken Follett, and Philippa Gregory.

Seventeen-year-old orphan, Marie de France, is considered too tall and homely to be married off or to serve as a lady in waiting, so she is banished to a rundown convent of starving nuns. Sullen and resentful, she is to serve as prioress, the second in command, once she takes her vows. A child conceived by rape, Marie is the half-sister of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom Marie loves passionately, obsessively, for her exquisite beauty and power. Separation from Eleanor makes banishment all the more painful, a pain that lasts Marie’s entire life. Marie also must leave behind her servant Cecily, who has satisfied her physical desires.

Once she gets over being peeved, Marie realizes she can improve not only her own life, but that of the nuns assigned to her care. She creates a self-sufficient world by raising crops, cows, sheep, and bees. She solicits women with skills in different trades to join the convent, and by bringing in literate women, she begins a manuscript service—even though women were thought inappropriate as scribes. In this way, the convent begins to make money and the nuns no longer starve. When the abbess dies, Marie steps into the position, becoming the convent’s most powerful figure. As the convent acquires wealth, it engenders jealousy and suspicion in the community, particularly since nuns already were already considered unnatural, sisters to witches. Marie herself is suspect since she experiences visions. To protect those under her care, Marie orders the building of a labyrinth of trees and shrubbery as a defense:

Women in this world are vulnerable; only reputation can keep them from being crushed. . . . She will build around herself walls of wealth and friends and good clear reputation, she will make her frail sisters safe within. . . . Of her own mind and hands she has shifted the world. She has made something new. This feeling is the thrill of creation. It jolts through her, dangerous and alive.

Marie’s great flaw is pride, and sometimes it leads her flock into harm’s way. Yet for the most part, she has good intentions. After one of the oblates becomes pregnant, she forbids men anywhere on their grounds. Thus, the women become truly cloistered from the outside world, avoiding even the diocese officials, and eventually deviating from church law altogether. Marie becomes the matrix, which derives from Latin, meaning “mother.” In this tale, all religious stories receive a fresh interpretation with the feminine as their heart and core.

The novel is filled with insightful gems relevant to our times, such as “Collapse is the constant state of humanity,” and “if you minister enough to any adult body, you will discover the frightened child hiding within it. . . . The greater the protestations of power, the smaller the child” and “Aging is a constant loss; all the things considered essential in youth prove with time that they are not.”

By the story’s end, Marie realizes had she “been beautiful or even just as ugly as she was but bearing a soft and mild femininity, she would have been married off, she would likely be long dead of childbirth.” She has come to appreciate the community that she leads where “there is a place here even for the maddest, for the discarded, for the difficult, in this enclosure there is love enough here even for the most unlovable of women.” In her later years she finds joy “coursing through her, the ecstasy of living within a body that held such riches in it, within the astonishing material world so overfull with beauty.”

Though she has acquired the greatness of a larger-than-life figure and knows it isn’t the same thing as goodness, she understands she can use that greatness for good:

And she saw at that moment how she could use this greatness for her sisters; she could give up the burn of singular love inside her and turn to a larger love, she could build around the other women an abbey of the spirit to protect them from cold and wet, from superiors waiting to gobble them up, she would build an invisible abbey made out of her own self, a larger church of her own soul, an edifice of self in which her sisters would grow as babes grow in the dark thrumming heat of the womb.

This sort of introspection revealing character growth is crucial to this novel. If you are looking for a fast-moving plot with lots of dead bodies, this one isn’t for you. But if you enjoy being immersed in the details of an earlier age and you like to imagine what it might have been like to be alive then, you will enjoy Matrix. It is an engrossing read with an unusual protagonist, who is admirable for her intelligence, resourcefulness, and efficiency—far more important qualities than mere physical beauty.

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