Cover Image: Matrix

Matrix

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In her new novel, Lauren Groff brilliantly recreates 12th-century England, a landscape of two cultures owing to its conquest a century earlier by the Norman French. (Remember 1066?)

Matrix narrates the inner life of a fictionally reconstituted “Marie de France.” Scholars disagree on precisely who the actual Marie was, but she makes occasional appearances in the historical record as a poet, fabulist, and religious visionary usually associated with the Anglo-Norman monarch Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The story is set in an impoverished English nunnery recently coming under Norman sway, where 17-year-old Marie is sent by the queen to become abbess-in-waiting. 

Groff’s Marie is a child of rape. Her noble mother is Queen Eleanor’s sister. Disdained for the circumstances of her creation, Marie is also notoriously tall and gangly and anything but well favored when it comes to facial beauty. And she’s resentful of what she sees as her abrupt banishment from the court, the nexus of meaningful life in the realm.

In Marie’s world, both victors and vanquished share a common Catholic culture, but their native languages diverge vastly. The Norman rulers are Francophones, while their subjects speak a tongue — befuddling to Marie — closer to the guttural Anglo-Saxon familiar to us from Beowulf, a language then undergoing a glacial change into a new Frenchified amalgam. 

Beyond the linguistic, a rash of other dualities stands out: the exuberant excess of the Norman nobles versus the hardscrabble poverty among the English commoners; the strict vow of chastity versus the human urge for sexual expression among the abbey’s sisters; and the rarely questioned authority of Church and State versus Marie’s independent streak. Most significantly, though, the central opposition in Matrix is a far more consequential one — the gulf between the mindsets and customary roles of women versus those of men. 

Like ungainly Marie, this interplay towers over the others, spinning the narrative headlong into a resonant feminist transfiguration. What results is a propulsive, enchanting, and emotionally charged read.

Both the historical and fictional Marie write charming short poems (or “lais”) rooted in the conventionally male-centric trope of courtly love. In them, noble knights, steadfastly and (in large part) chastely loyal to a distant love object, usually a queen, wander dark forests alert to wayward signs and wonders. 

Groff upends the underlying sexual tension in this convention, underscoring and exacerbating the unspoken irony. Her Marie dispatches her lovelorn packet of lais to a seemingly unreachable Queen Eleanor, effectively dedicating the collection to her and pledging her eternal love.

Marie’s longing for Eleanor is the fulcrum on which the story turns. Initially ignored by the queen and committed to making her mark at the abbey (and in the world), she essentially acts like a man. Enlisting support from a team of sisterly advisors, Marie introduces an agenda of renewal, building strong relations with the local villagers (who owe the abbey feudal fealty anyway).

She disrupts the division of labor among the sisters to reinvigorate the corporate health of the abbey, a sea change from its old mission of enforcing the spiritual mortification of its inhabitants. She installs a new, more profitable staple crop. She staffs a scriptorium to compete with male monasteries in copying and illuminating manuscripts, undercutting their pricing significantly. 

And Marie bans men from the abbey and its environs, creating an impenetrable “labyrinth” in the encircling forests. Later, she defends the abbey through guile and misdirection from the village men’s clumsy assault. The nunnery becomes a thriving island of women in a surrounding sea of conventional male privilege.

In matters of sexuality, Groff brilliantly handles flashes of physical intimacy among her sisters — including Marie’s own occasional moments — with a moving and empathetic touch. 

Marie’s 50 years at the abbey sketch out a compelling arc of spiritual growth — a passage from angry ambition to abiding faith, a hagiography of sorts. As its Latinate title hints, Matrix celebrates a maternal journey touchingly parallel to the uplifting spiritual temper of its time: a fresh attention to the feminine via the religious cult of Mary and the conventions of courtly romance. 

Of course, uplifting matters have no place amid the clash of arms in the real, male-dominated world. In that light, the ultimate irony in Groff’s utopian sojourn shines through like a signal flare in the distance, both then and now.
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It's not often that I learn a vocabulary word from the title of a book. The Matrix, in this sense, is the mother from which all things spring. (Think Latin: Mater).
Lauren Groff's excellent novel is the story of Marie, the ungainly bastard half-sibling of the children of Eleanor of Aquitaine. When Marie is 17, Eleanor deems her unmarriageable and sends her off the be the prioress of an impoverished nunnery. The Matrix is a medieval girl-power story that features visions from Mary, various medieval scrouges, and the triumph of women against their time. It was funny and irreverent in places, and unlike any book I had read before. Writing: 5 stars, Characters: 5 stars, Plot: four stars.

Thanks to Netgalley for a copy in return for a fair review.
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I was intrigued by the premised of this novel when I first learned of it, and while I have not read any of Groff's other books, her reputation was another draw. The titular matrix is Marie, illegitimate half-sister to England’s Henry II, abbess of Shaftesbury Abbey, and possibly the same person known as Marie de France, believed to be the first French female poet. Since she lived in the 12th and 13th centuries, little is known of her. We meet Groff’s Marie when she is 17 and still mourning the loss of her mother and reeling from the news that her adored sister-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is sending her away to a poor nunnery because she doesn’t think anyone will want to marry such an unattractive, enormous woman. Matrix follows Marie’s development from reluctant novice, to hardworking prioress, and eventually abbess, transforming the abbey from a pitiful group of starving sisters to a wealthy, influential group headed by an ambitious woman. Beautiful and spellbinding.
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This is Lauren Groff’s fourth novel – she’s also the author of two short stories collections, but what I’d say she’s most known for is her last novel that came out in 2015, Fates and Furies. That seemed to be the book that really put her on the map, in the literary world, anyway. Her previous books had been well-received, but Fates and Furies was a finalist for the National Book Award and even President Barack Obama called it his favorite book of that year.

She hasn’t released a new novel since Fates and Furies in 2015 – her last book she released was the second of her two short story collections, so this new novel has been highly anticipated, including by me because I loved Fates and Furies. I know that book was and very likely is still divisive, very Marmite, to put it the British way – people seem to love it or hate it. I am underlining that fact at the start of this video, because I’m expecting very similar reactions to this new book, Matrix.

Matrix is being advertised as the story of Marie de France, a poet who is believed to have lived in late 12th century England. Very little is known about her, including her true identity. It does seem to be commonly believed that she was an abbess, one theory supposes that she was related to the royal family, and, based on her work, she was clearly an educated woman and someone of repute. But no one knows 100% who she was. It’s not even crystal clear if Marie was her real name, or if it was a pen name.

But here’s where I need to make another early interjection, and say that, like I frequently have to in my review videos, that this book’s marketing mischaracterizes it. What I can say is that this is indeed a story about a woman named Marie. In the book, she’s the illegitimate half-sister of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. She lives at court after the death of her mother up until she’s 17 years old when it’s decided that she won’t be able to be married off because of her physical appearance, so instead she’s sent to an Abbey in England.

Marie is devastated to be sent away. She’s forced to leave her companion, or even as I would argue, her partner, Cecily, but also in a very complicated way, she is in love with the Queen. She’s not receptive to the idea of becoming a nun, let alone taking on a position of leadership within the abbey – she’s barely even religious when she arrives, so she bucks the system and in a fit of rebellion, she writes these poems, these “lays” as they’re called, that the real Marie of France was well-known for.

But after that early section, there is very little discussion of Marie as a writer, at least in the way you’d expect if this were truly an imagining of the life of the real Marie de France. I would say that instead, this book was inspired by the real writer, but instead focuses on Marie as a prioress and later an abbess at this abbey. The publisher’s copy about this book incorrectly – in my opinion – suggests this is a book about female creativity. I’d argue it’s much, much more a book about female ambition.

More thoughts in my Booktube review!
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What a stunning historical novel!  I absurdly adored the story of Marie, cast out to a nunnery in the 1100's.  With passion, Marie comes to find herself at home in the sacred and the profane. A fictionalized vivid beautiful story to lose time in.
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Finally, a novel about my beloved Marie de France! Marie is one of the most intriguing figures in literature. She is one of the first recorded female authors in Europe and she’s thought to have invented the chivalric romance. So if you like stories about King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere you can thank Marie. Yet her identity is a mystery. All we know about her is an elusive statement which she makes in the epilogue to one of her works, the Fables: ‘Marie ai nun, si sui de France’ [Marie is my name and I am from France]. Lauren Geoff has beautifully imagined Marie as a Plantagenet bastardess, daughter of a female warrior of the Crusades, who is shipped away to a plague and starvation ridden English convent. Her rise to abbess of the richest and most influential abbey in England is the story. I absolutely loved it.
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“Matrix” by Lauren Groff, Riverhead Books, 272 pages, Sept. 7, 2021.

It is 1158 and Marie de France, 17, is cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, deemed too coarse and rough-hewn for marriage or courtly life. She is illegitimate and her half-sister plotted against her.

Marie is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey. The nuns are on the brink of starvation and suffering from a strange disease.

At first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus in collective life. Marie, born the last in a long line of women warriors and crusaders, is determined to chart a bold new course for the women she now leads.

While the characters are strong, the pacing is slow. The second half really dragged. Time advances quickly and all of a sudden the characters are old. Historical fiction fans may like it.

 Lauren Groff’s last novel was “Fates and Furies.” 

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the advance reader's edition of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review.
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A novel based on the life of 12th century poet Marie de France, about whom very little is known, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. What works best is the rich, sensual atmosphere and the finely wrought details of medieval life in an abbey. 

The writing is gorgeous, although I felt it was holding me at a distance, skimming too quickly across time, and the mystical aspects lost me a bit. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to spend time in this world of extraordinary feminine power. Reminiscent of Circe by Madeline Miller and the Red Tent by Anita Diamant.

Thank you to Riverhead for the ARC.
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Lauren Groff's Matrix, based on the life of Marie de France, is an interesting read—in the best sense of "interesting." Little is known about the life of Marie, a 12th Century bastard of the French royal family who—in Groff's telling—isn't pretty or docile enough to be useful on the marriage market and is sent at age 17 to become Prioress of an impoverished abbey. Marie rightly sees this appointment as a sort of banishment, but grows from resenting her new position to embracing the responsibilities (and power) it involves.

I called this book an interesting read because Groff's Marie is such a mixed bag: Groff presents her as a lesbian, a visionary, a tactician extraordinaire, a businesswoman, a charismatic leader, an egoist, a woman whose political vision can blind her to the world in which she lives, and both as a religious doubter and a religious radical, who takes on for herself the role of saying mass and hearing confession for her abbey. She's not an anti-hero, but neither is she the sort of medieval holy woman featured in much fiction based in this era. 

For anyone interested in the history of this time period, the lives of medieval women, and/or 12th Century theology, Matrix is an essential read. Yes, it's fiction, but it's the kind of fiction that allows readers to explore that era in ways beyond those that scholarly research can inspire.

I received a free electronic review copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley; the opinions are my own.
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3.5
This is an impressive book - well researched and beautifully written - but not one that I particularly enjoyed reading. With the ratings of "liked", and "really liked", it is a bit challenging to rate. I admired the writing and scope of this novel but did not "really like" it (which is why I would like to reduce it by a half star). Groff effectively creates a vivid medieval abbey setting and characters that seem realistic for that period. Marie is a strong and interesting woman who is central to the novel, yet I didn't feel an emotional connection to her and for me that is an important part in the enjoyment of a book. This novel is likely to receive accolades and positive reviews, but in spite of my four star rating (for quality of writing), it isn't one of my favorites.
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I don’t usually seek out historical fiction, but I really enjoyed Fates and Furies and was curious about Lauren Groff’s new work: Wow! While the two novels could not be more different, Matrix does not disappoint.

Beyond being an early poet (the first woman poet?) a documentarian of traditional Breton lais, and a rumored illegitimate heir to King Henry II of England, little is actually known about Marie de France. Groff’s research seems diligent enough, though, and more importantly, perhaps, she weaves a compelling, believable, and gorgeously epic narrative of medieval monastic life. While Marie’s bloodline does not lead her to inherit a crown or to be married off (besides she is too tall, large, clumsy, ugly), she does inherit her late mother’s fiery crusader spirit and independence, and from Eleanor of Aquitaine (for whom she burns quite fervently) she inherits this convent to manage: financially, logistically, and spiritually at the age of seventeen. Groff’s descriptions of the cloistered community through several decades offer insight into this pretty insular coterie, a coterie which, under Marie’s leadership, begins to flourish and even support the community outside its own doors, much to the objection of the church (and the state).Themes such as the independence of women and a nod to climate change, anchor this twelfth-century novel strongly to the present day.
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This book blew me away.  I have a PhD in medieval English history and was intrigued to see how Lauren Groff treated one of my favorite subjects.  She did not disappoint.  Her research is high but her ability to weave a story out of sparse facts is superb.  Marie came alive as did life in an English medieval abbey.  This book was so hard to put down and I would have kept reading if Marie's life hadn't come to an end.  Highly recommended!
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A decidedly more restrained effort than Fates and Furies, Groff's latest nonetheless accumulates power as it progresses, building a female-driven middle-ages world with a singular, memorable heroine at the fore. A surprise effort from the author — though perhaps it shouldn't be given her penchant for artistic pivots — but not an unwelcome one.
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This is a very puzzling book! I found it thought-provoking enough that I gave it for stars, but it's not a book I want to revisit and in some ways I didn't experience a lot of pleasure reading it? Puzzling! It's about Marie de France, a francophone poet about whom basically nothing is known, and the book writes into that space, making her a cast-off of Eleanor of Aquitaine, sent to live in an abbey.

One of the puzzles for me with this book is that it resists cohesive narrative. It's a chronological fictitious account of this woman's life, but there isn't really a plot. I suppose it's perhaps trying to honor whatever the real life of this woman was, because of course real life doesn't have a plot. But then again, this is a novel! So that's puzzling.

I was intrigued by this book for its promise of visions. And what I was given instead was so earthly. So much of the book reminds us what fragile animals humans are, susceptible to disease (not a great read if you've got a lot of pandemic trauma) and full of gross fluids. And also how subject to caprice people are, especially at the hands of the powerful. Marie was cast off to a nunnery on a whim and it shaped her life. She had the leadership skills that made the abbey flourish, and then she threw in a little heresy along the way.

Also, the prose choice is puzzling. Dense text, long sentences with lots of clauses. Sparse dialogue, incorporated into paragraphs with commas. It's a conceit that keeps everything a little zoomed out. Add to that the fact that the woman's whole life passes over the course of the novel, and you'll find the bits you find most intriguing will zip by and then the next nun will be dying of a fever or whatever.

All that said, I'm still grappling with what to think of this book, so it certainly left a mark.


***Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing an ARC in exchange for my honest review.***
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Absolutely breathtaking. Matrix brings the medieval world brightly into modern life with Groff’s exceptional voice and one of a kind talent.
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- MATRIX is gorgeous, painful, and powerful. Groff's writing carries you along its current through Marie's ups and downs, power grabs and moments of softness.
- This book is an ode to matriarchy, female friendship and sapphic love, and how these support systems propel us through even the bleakest of times.
- Though at times the poetry of the writing felt like it kept the reader at a remove, I still felt deeply for these women, cheering their victories and mourning their losses with them. Even if you know next to nothing about Marie de France or Eleanor of Aquitane (as I did not) this book is still quite engrossing.
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novels_with_narci
So Marie of France 🇫🇷 is too tall, ungainly, and honest for the court of her relative by marriage, Eleanor d’Aquitaine, who banishes her to a squalidly dysfunctional nunnery. But Marie has untapped potential, some of which springs from her championship-women-warriors/crusaders lineage. The quest begins, though it’s focused in this abbey which thrives of her own making. There are holy visions, clever conversations, and satisfying comeuppances, but no medieval romance of the traditional variety. And I didn’t miss it at all. #laurengroff #matrix
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Groff is a supremely talented writer.  I know this because she made her quiet, contemplative story of a medieval abbess and her abbey of nuns kind of a page turner. Her sentences sing and her characters are clearly embossed on each page.  This is a feminist tale and while the setting may be almost a thousand years ago, it feels modern and timely.  It reminds this reader that things might improve if women were in charge.  At the very least we would be safe from the unrelenting violence of men, their power and their decaying world.
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In this epic novel Lauren Groff imaginatively brings alive in historical fiction the lives of two powerful women who actually lived in early Medieval England and France. When reading the intensely intimate and powerful narrative told from the perspective of Marie, I kept wondering at the historical accuracy and the sheer wondrous unusual nature of bringing powerful Medieval women’s thoughts, ambitions, fears and intimacies to center stage. 

It turns out that Groff has drawn the two main characters, Marie and Eleanor, from history. Marie de France, the nom de plume of a well know poet and scholar, was born in France but lived in England during the late 12th century. Her popular work was known at the royal court of King Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Marie de France’s romantic narrative poetry focused on love that causes suffering, often by those involved adulterous relationships or on the fringes of society, and generally ends in grief. In rebellion against the Church, Marie de France rejected the idea of virginal love or marriage., and instead focused on female strength and power. Interestingly, she also was the first person translated Aesop’s fables into English. 

Eleanor of Aquitaine was both Queen of France married to King Louis VII and then Queen of England in a subsequent marriage to King Henry II. Heir to rulers in Southwestern France, she proved the wealthiest and most powerful women in the high Middle Ages. Between her two marriages, Eleanor had ten children and lived until age 82, ultimately outliving all but two. Reports of the time portrayed Eleanor as beautiful, high-spirited, extroverted, intelligent, and strong-willed. Gossipy reports circulated at the time of her immodest dress and her leading a campaign fought by soldiers from her court during the Crusades. Like the plot in Matrix, Eleanor did much of the travel described, including a period of imprisonment for supporting her son in a rebellion against his King father and dying in an abbey. 

Matrix, the book’s title, seems to stem from the old entomology of the word in Middle English from Latin, meaning a breeding female, and later womb. It shares this origin from mater and matr- ‘mother’- in essence being maternal. And Matrix centers around two radically different versions of being a mother: Eleanor politically embroiled with her large brood of children and Marie rising up to become the Mother of the Abbey who saves the day to better the lives of women under her care as Abbess.

In Groff’s hands, a complex fable of suffering from love, what it means to be maternal, and women taking power from traditionalist men unspools. Marie stems from royal lineage, but tragically that royal connection stems from the rape of her mother, who has died. After managing her family affairs for a couple years. she gets rescued into Eleanor’s court- a tall, gangly, gawky girl. Marie has an immense crush on Eleanor and eventually gets dismissed by Eleanor and sent at age 17 to take on the role of abbess in a run-down, poverty-stricken abbey of nuns in England. And yet she never gives up her yearning for beautiful Eleanor, with whom she keeps up a lifelong correspondence.

Marie transforms herself from exiled victim to builder of a powerful community of nuns who stand on their own without manipulation from either the Church or royalty. Marie draws on the past of managing her family estate, and on radiant holy visions she believes come to her from the Virgin Mary. She starts collecting rent owed from the Abbey’s landholders, she builds up a group of nuns with occupational specialties from blacksmiths to farmers to weavers to healers. She builds an impenetrable labyrinth with a secret direct passage that only the nuns know to keep out interlopers. She establishes a scriptorium with writers, translators and artiest. She dams up a nearby lake on royal property to ensure a constant water supply. She alternatively fights and indulgences her sexual attraction to women. She decides she can stand in for the priests- and grab back power from the church for women to give the sacrament and hear confessions. At every turn, she fiercely keeps at bay power-hungry priests and violent men. 

And with this comes a transcendence of language and poetic writing from Groff- as inspirational as the original poetry crafted by Marie de France to fight the confining strictures of what Medieval France and England forced upon its women. 

And when at last Marie’s power and life ebbs, you sit in reverential silence closing the book and hearing the continuing echoes of women’s voices lost to history.
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A fascinating look at an extraordinary woman at a time when women weren't really considered. I enjoyed it and was engrossed, but never swept away.
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