Monday, October 18, 2021

Matrix by Lauren Groff


The year is 1158.  The countries of Europe are mired in conflict but royal alliances abound between the countries.  There are only a few royal families so their influence spreads through intermarriage and wars.  The latest Crusade to recapture Jerusalem has failed; this one a disastrous attempt by women and children.  Marie is one of those from the failed Crusade.  She has returned, a child of sixteen but her mother died in the attempt.  Through various marriages, Marie is a half-sister of Queen Eleanor, a woman of grace and beauty.  Eleanor has some responsibility for Marie but when she sees the ungainly almost woman, tall and broad, lacking in all feminine wiles, she despairs of marrying Marie off, much less gaining more power through doing so.

Instead, a plan is made to ship Marie off.  She is to sent as prioress to a convent in England although it is unclear the extent or even existence of her religious belief.  It is an unpopular choice for all.  The existing nuns resent the intrusion of this teenager who will have authority over them.  Marie is appalled at the small convent where the nuns are slowly starving and dying of illness.  Eleanor is the only one glad, glad that she has managed to discharge an obligation at little cost to herself.

Marie spends the rest of her life at the convent, a long life extending into her seventies.  She finds that the convent is the perfect place for her to create a life and to build something that cannot be taken away from her.  She transforms the place over the years and decades into a thriving sanctuary where all are taken care of and where women and their dreams are allowed to exist and grow.  Although it was never her intent, Eleanor has indeed placed Marie into a place where she can bloom.

This is not the book most readers would have anticipated from Lauren Groff.  It is very different from her other novels yet shares an interest in women and their creativity.  It is a fascinating character study and an exploration of the ways women have managed to blossom over the years in settings designed to repress them.  It is a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction and is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

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