From the NYT Bestseller List...
Matrix, Lauren Groff (Riverhead books, 2021). 17-year-old Marie is out of place at the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine. She’s tall, rough, and not terribly pretty. Deciding not much can be done with her, Eleanor banishes her to a tiny, shabby abbey in England to be its new prioress. Out of place and resentful at first, Marie gradually immerses herself in her new role and slowly turns the abbey around, rescuing it from near death and shaping it into a magnificent sanctuary for women.
The story follows Marie from her arrival to her ascension as Abbess to her death, some fifty plus years later. It narrates her deeds, her passions, and her supreme confidence in herself as the leader of her nuns. Her faith is
in herself and in her charges, and she bristles at the notion of women playing second fiddle to men. Driven by visions and distrust of the outside world, Marie gradually builds the abbey into a place of great wealth that is walled off from unwanted male intrusions. Marie can be ruthless when she has to be, but mostly she is strong, fearless, and determined. One cannot read her story without being impressed with her courage.
The story has themes of feminism and queer love, but these are handled deftly and expertly woven into the story.
Two things stand out about this book. First, the worldbuilding is outstanding. The author is painstaking and vivid in bringing to life a 12th century abbey, capturing the attitudes, the smells, the privations, and the pleasures of the place. Obviously a ton of research lies behind the story. Hats off for that.
Second, the author tells her story with powerful, evocative language. Her words are precise and forceful. She has an immense talent with words that aspiring writers can only envy. Yes, at times the language wanders into near poetry and seems digressive, but not enough to detract and a small price to pay for beautiful prose.
What are the downsides? The primary one is the story’s aloofness. The book steadfastly maintains a distance between the reader and Marie, and the distance felt too great. I was interested in Marie’s life and how things turned out for her, but I possessed a certain detachment and disinterest in whether Marie failed or succeeded in her various undertakings. When Marie died, I shrugged. As a reader, I like to have more emotional investment in the main character than what I felt here. A couple things got in the way. One, the book covers over fifty years of time, and at various points the narrative may skip over decades in a blink of an eye. That injects a certain abstractness to the story. Two, conflict and tension are too muted. It’s not quite “she came, she saw, she conquered,” but you get the picture.
In sum, I recommend reading this book for its superior atmosphere, prose, and technique. Enjoy the characters the way you enjoy watching elegant floats in the Rose Bowl parade glide by in front of you. You can’t get close and they’re not to be touched, but they’re still a beautiful sight to behold.