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.
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.***
Absolutely breathtaking. Matrix brings the medieval world brightly into modern life with Groff’s exceptional voice and one of a kind talent.
- 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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