Cover Image: Matrix

Matrix

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

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.
Was this review helpful?
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.
Was this review helpful?
I have always loved this author but Matrix kept me transfixed. A thoroughly modern look at the role of women in the Middle Ages from powerful queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie, abbess of a mighty convent to lepers and peasant women.  Had me scrambling to find out more about Marie who was a real and fascinating historical figure  who wrote poetry and built a convent empire of women. Groff illuminates the inner  lives of these religious women and the freedom they found (and had to fight for) within the abbey walls. Could not put it down.
Was this review helpful?
This novel was clearly an incredible feat of time and research. The prose is beautiful and almost hypnotizing. However, I feel like the prose is almost a detriment to the actual storytelling. I had a lot of trouble visualizing anything that was happening in the book and often found myself confused on what was a vision and what was reality. I know there is a readership that will love this book, but it wasn't for me.
Was this review helpful?
An inspiring novel set in medieval England but much more than a historical novel. Marie de France is banished to an English abbey against her will. Lauren Groff knows all 170K words in the English language and Latin too - so keep your dictionary handy. It's awesome.
Was this review helpful?
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an early read of Matrix!

Marie de France was a 12th century poet. Beyond her poetry, virtually nothing is known about her or her life, except that she was likely born in France but lived much of her life in England. It has been speculated that she could have been the Abbess of Shaftesbury, half sister to King Henry II.  Lauren Groff takes these slim facts and creates her own Marie de France.  

She starts with a young Marie, newly orphaned and removed from her home, being banished from court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, her main “crimes” being that she is a large plain woman unlikely to marry, and that she is an illegitimate half-sister to royalty. She is sent to a poor remote Abbey in England, despite not having a religious calling.  Her birth gives her standing and despite her young age, she is made Prioress.  But Eleanor has underestimated Marie – who is just as strong and ambitious as Eleanor herself.  She quickly takes the Abbey and its inhabitants in hand, making changes, using her resources and her wiles, so that gradually, as the years pass by, the Abbey becomes a rich and well-respected institution. When she becomes Abbess, she begins having visions, which direct her to make the Abbey a refuge and safe place for the women in her care, in bold and surprising ways.  

Marie is an interesting character – in some ways, she is a hard woman, formed by disappointment, regret and an unrequited love for Eleanor.  But there are also a close group of nuns that she holds dear, who she trusts as her confidantes and supporters.   Groff has created a woman who is both of her times, and beyond her times, in such a believable way, and with such beautiful language and such a rich sense of time and place.  If you like literary fiction, historical fiction, or stories about strong women, then try Matrix by Lauren Groff.
Was this review helpful?
Lauren Groff's writing is deep and subtle, with a style that grabs me and doesn't let go. I really enjoyed this fantastical imagined life of Marie de France. The depictions of women's religious life, queer yearning, and peripheral royal intrigue are sometimes larger than life but wind together into a compelling whole. I loved this.
Was this review helpful?
This is a book to fall in to. It's all atmosphere, detail, and lush prose. It's an unexpected topic, but wandering in a forest full of visions and nuns feels pleasantly bewildering.
Was this review helpful?
In the 12th century, Marie de France is banished by Eleanor of Aquitaine to a neglected convent in England.  Groff has masterfully portrayed a time in history that was bleak but fascinating. Its the story of an outcast whom becomes a powerful religious figure and the women in the convent that she loves and protects.  Each character is so layered and the imagery of the landscape is mesmerizing.  So perfect in every way.
Was this review helpful?
I've read a few of Lauren Groff's earlier books (Florida, Fates and Furies) and really enjoyed them, but I just couldn't get into this. A woman is cast out from the royal court and sent to an abbey in the 12th century, and then...nothing much happens. Nuns and staff come and go. There is a siege, the women at the abbey defeat the encroaching army, and then...back to normal. I read and read, waiting for something, anything, but Marie just kind of keeps living at the abbey. The book is well written but feels ultimately kind of pointless.
Was this review helpful?
Loved the character of Marie, who, I just learned, was a real person in the Middle Ages. This novel demonstrates the strength of women to survive and thrive in even the most unusual of circumstances. As prioress of the abbey, her life seems truly unique. The author paints with words as the setting is vivid and the nuns, memorable.  This is an interesting look at feminism and religion.

Thanks to NetGalley and Riverhead Books for the ARC to read and review.
Was this review helpful?
I was so excited to hear that Lauren Groff has another book coming out. I have previously loved her other books, and she has a knack for creating characters that show how they experience the world, their lives, or unusual circumstances. When I hear that this book was about a 12th century nun, the type of character that in less capable hands I probably would have not really been able to connect to, I was intrigued. Ultimately, Lauren Groff did what she always does with the depth other characters. Maria is interesting, scared, disappointed and longing for the life she had previously in the royal court. I was fascinated by the first half of the book.
The second half I found dragged a lot. Time advances very quickly, and suddenly most of the characters are old. Many projects get taken on, but I don't fully understand the reasoning behind them. I found that I lost my connection with Maria and her closest sisters, and the second half of the book was a bit of a slog for me.
Was this review helpful?
Matrix is a strange, quiet novel about late 12th century English nuns written in lyrical, meandering prose. Lauren Groff runs with the theory that the medieval poet Marie de France was Marie, Abbess of Shaftesbury, and fleshes out the woman behind the influential work. (Though fans of The Lais of Marie de France may be disappointed that the lais only make a brief appearance; I know I was.) 

Sent into the dilapidated Shaftesbury Abbey by Eleanor of Aquitaine, the awkward, hulking teenage Marie de France feels imprisoned by the rigid structure and rampant poverty she encounters. She gradually grows accustomed to her fate, using her strategic ambition to rise in the abbey's ranks. Matrix lacks a more substantial plot; the story's core purpose is to watch Marie ripen in experience and the abbey grow in renown. 

3.5/5: Sometimes the pacing was slow and the time-jumps harsh, but once I accepted the book's structure, I did like it. The novel is also very queer, which is always welcome in medieval historical fiction (and relevant when one considers the homoeroticism embedded in Marie's lais). Overall, an interesting, immersive work of literary fiction with elements of mysticism and female resistance.
Was this review helpful?
Have admired this author’s earlier work, and this one just as good. Historical fiction-12th century. The central character is Marie de France,bastardess royalty banished by Eleanor of Aquitane to a poverty stricken decrepit abbey.MATRIX in this sense means mother and we follow this 17 year old awkward ungainly girl through her life as novitiate to prioress to abbess.Initially resentful and hating the life, we watch her become a formidable, smart,brave , visionary woman, aided by several” visions” of the VirginMary, transforming the destitute abbey of women into a “ utopia”, all happening in a period when women were viewed as inferior.
It is a view of Catholicism and religious life far removed from traditional teaching on many levels( as an example, she hears confessions and says Mass) and in several beautiful passages offers dire predictions about the modern world-climate change, prejudice, white male superiority as examples. A book that must be read carefully to be fully appreciated, and beautifully written
Was this review helpful?
4 stars 

I would NEVER have thought that I'd be interested in a book with this particular subject matter, but it is impossible to read this and not be unwaveringly amazed by the amount of work Groff has clearly put in to constructing this. There must be Carrie from _Homeland_ -style charts keeping all of this material in order (and maybe an adaptation of Alice's chart from _The L Word_, now that I think more about this). Truly, this is a feat, and I've not read anything else quite like it. 

The central character, Marie (De France), has a challenging origin story and a life that readers get to see most of; this is fortunate because there are some relative twists and turns. Marie enters this new phase of her life with great disdain and some understandable hopelessness, but then she leads a personal and communal revolution (in all kinds of ways). Watching Marie and Co. develop in the face of extreme restrictions and lack of opportunity for women at this time is gripping. Many of these characters experience extremes when it comes to having no agency and then utterly changing the landscape. Reading this made me glad not to be a peer but also fully energized on these characters' behalves.  

My previous experiences reading Groff have been positive but SO different from this novel. This isn't the piece to jump into just because you love Groff. Dive into this one if you are looking for something new, fresh, and unexpected; you'll get some solid queer rep as an added bonus. For a certain kind of reader, there's an exquisite payoff here.
Was this review helpful?
Marie is exiled to England by Eleanor of Aquitaine to become the prioress of a poor and desperate abbey. Full disclosure: I studied medieval history in college and the blurb for this immediately caught my eye. In Groff’s latest novel she explores a possible life of Marie of France including the violence of the times, and the passion, faith, power and creativity of women. This is a beautifully written, fascinating read.
Was this review helpful?
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this. It's not a subject matter that would typically draw me in, but I found the writing lyrical and the setting interesting.
Was this review helpful?
I will admit to having a bit of trepidation before starting 'Matrix," given its medeival setting [I'm usually not a fan of historical fiction]. But I'll follow Lauren Groff anywhere and was totally absorbed by the extraordinary journey of Marie de France and her personal and political crusade. The tale is relevant to our contemporary struggles and packs a powerful punch. Recommended!
Was this review helpful?
This never quite opened up for me… It’s a medieval girlboss fantasia set almost entirely in an abbey, loosely based on the little that’s known about Marie de France. This Marie is kicked out of the French royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine and sent to run the abbey at age seventeen. That’s about where the real hardships for Marie end. The abbey is poor when she gets there, and over the course of the book we see her turn it into a rich and profitable abbey. Mild threats from the Queen to tax them higher are somehow easily evaded. Conflict comes and goes like that, showing up in little bursts and soon being overcome by Marie’s tall-tale-like ingenuity and power. The story is told at a distance, spanning the whole lifetime of Marie, so I understand from an efficiency perspective not wanting to get into any one challenge she faced. But, for me, a boredom set in halfway through that didn’t ever leave. It’s hard to be engaged if you know that any trouble that comes her way will quickly and often unbelievably be tossed off with ease. Towers go up despite protests, attackers are defeated with hardly any loss or pain to the nuns, sexism is seemingly done away with when the townspeople and the church leaders and everyone else behold the power of Marie. It makes the novel feel cartoonish, like a superhero story without a compelling villain. A reader is supposed to have the same awe that the fellow nuns do, but it’s one thing to be told you should feel awe and another thing to feel it. I think it’s a great project to tell a story about medieval women without the usual doom and gloom, but it does a disservice to focus so much on the magical exceptionality of Marie. Like any story about exceptions overcoming the oppression of their groups, there’s a risk of making it seem like—well, if this one person can do all that, then isn’t every other person’s oppression kind of a fault of their shortcomings? I.e. while trying to do a feminist reclamation, it has whiffs of a conservative bootstrap tale. Without realistic, believable, grounded conflict, it’s hard to put the awe you're supposed to have for Marie in perspective.
Was this review helpful?
This is a bizarre book. So bizarre I'm not sure how I feel about it. I wouldn't say I liked it, but I didn't not like it. 

Too tall and too uncouth, Marie is sent to England to be a priorcess of an abbey full of starving nuns. Through her genius and large physical stature, she finds ways to make the abbey profitable. Once she is in charge of the abbey, she receives visions from Virgin Mary on how to make the abbey great. These changes don't make her popular with people outside the abbey. She must use her brains to deal with them.
Was this review helpful?