Review: Matrix, by Lauren Groff
An interesting one, this - I'm not quite sure why I was expecting it to be a more straightforward historical fiction, but it was actually an introspective lifetime journey into mysticism and a musing on the different ways women could be in power, set in a 12th-century abbey.
This is, very basically, the story of Marie de France, who is part of the Angevin family tree because Henry II's father raped her mother. She is sent to the English court after her mother dies, strikes up a friendship of sorts with Queen Eleanor, and then is banished to a convent where she eventually becomes abbess. The book is a musing on her life journey, and also a comparison of the two different types of power that women are allowed to have, and also feminism and the forming of female solidarity and communities in a time and place where that kind of thing was considered very suspicious and weird.
I quite liked the independent parts of this book, but the thing stopping it from being a five-star read for me was that I'm not quite sure the parts came together successfully - if that makes sense (I also think that since it was a lifetime book, set over a large span of time, the big transitions felt both a bit rushed and also too much telly and not enough showy).
The relationship between Marie and Eleanor (yes, Eleanor of Aquitaine, this is twelfth-century England, do keep up) was one of the strong parts of the novel; and so was the turn towards mysticism. Every time there was a focus on Marie's inner life, or her writings and her work, the strength of the writing and the structure came through quite powerfully. I think the transition of Marie from child who didn't want to be a nun to ambitious, determined prioress was a bit rushed - it happened in a couple of sentences, and I think that this is one of those spaces where the book could have benefitted from being maybe 50 pages longer. The transitions needed a bit more space to breathe.
The focus on the daily work of the abbey was also really strong, and I think served as a great foil counterpart to the focus on the external politics and power struggles that Marie was engaging in (especially since those were always mentioned in a casual, offhand way, which structurally worked really well with what Lauren Groff was trying to do).
And, throughout the whole book, the thing that came through the best for me was the strength of the writing and how richly detailed and nuanced Groff made Marie's inner life and thoughts. Basically this book was a really great introspective novel with some period, historical details wonderfully sprinkled throughout the narrative - I just wish it had been a bit longer.
But I do recommend - it's a wonderful novel that's very thought-provoking with some fabulously gorgeous writing.