Matrix, by Lauren Groff

Fellow readers, I have to admit that I am baffled by this book. I don’t understand why Matrix, by Lauren Groff, was such a hit with readers and critics. Most of the critics included in the Book Marks round-up I linked to in the previous sentence rave about Groff’s use of language and its feminist take on life at a medieval convent but, for me, this book runs afoul of Kurt Vonnegut’s first rule of writing: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” I was so baffled by two decisions Groff made in this book that I feel, in the end, my time has been wasted.

But first, a short summary: Marie de France (in this narrative) is an unloved and un-pretty child of a Plantagenet rapist who the head of the family, Eleanor of Aquitaine, has no idea what to do with. Because no one will want to marry Marie and secure lands or influence, Eleanor decides to set Marie up as the prioress of a poor, famine- and disease-stricken abbey. Marie pushes to improve conditions at the abbey almost as soon as she arrives. Within a few years, she has turned things around so much that she has to conceal the wealth of the abbey so that it isn’t stripped of its assets by the church hierarchy or taxed back into poverty by a warmongering royal family. Matrix follows Marie through her rise to abbess, jumping through the years to various points in her career until her death at an advanced age.

The first thing that baffled me about Matrix was Groff’s decision to use actual historical figure Marie de France as her protagonist. Marie de France’s real identity is not known but Groff uses one of her possible identities, Mary of Shaftesbury, to give the anonymous poet a career in the church and a royal lineage. Marie de France is known to us now as the innovative author of the lais, a series of stories based on folklore and songs from Brittany, that became hugely popular throughout Europe in the twelfth century. The lais are fantastical stories that contain subversive elements that question ideas about romantic love and chivalry. In Matrix, the lais are composed over a few fevered nights to try and win Marie some favor from Eleanor but are then never mentioned in the narrative. Instead, Marie’s writing efforts are turned towards a hidden journal of mystical visions that direct Marie to have her nuns and laywomen build an impenetrable labyrinth around the abbey, expel all males above the age of 12 from the abbey grounds, and divert water from royal land. Because Marie de France the author is so little explored, I have to wonder why Groff didn’t just leave that part out and write a new fictional biography for Mary of Shaftesbury.

The second thing that baffled me about Matrix was the pacing. I know I harp on pacing in my reviews but I find this is an important element of storytelling. I can put up with a slow pace if it fits the story. By all means, slow the pace down to build atmosphere or to develop character, or speed the pace up to heighten narrative tension and keep us readers flipping the pages to find out what happens next. The pace of Matrix is fast but only because it jumps through time so much between scenes or vignettes. There is no reason to do this, as far as I could tell, because Marie and her flock live a mostly sedate, workaday life (apart from when Marie is exhorting them to build big labyrinths and whatnot). On top of that, there’s a very good reason to slow things down: so that we can really understand Marie’s character. I had a very hard time trying to pin Marie down because she is portrayed, variously, as a love-struck girl, an exasperated fixer, an anxious abbess, a holy woman, a proud woman, a spiteful woman, a loving woman. Marie can be any and all of these people, of course, but using time jumps instead of developing Marie’s character with actual text made it impossible for her character to coalesce in my head.

So, readers, I just don’t know what to make of this book, let alone understand why it got so much praise. Has anyone else read Matrix? If so, what did you think?



    • I wouldn’t have picked it up, but a friend and fellow reader asked me to read it. She couldn’t figure out why all the critics were buzzing about it. When I told her that I didn’t understand the hype either, she said she felt better since now there were two baffled people instead and she could stop wondering what she missed.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thank you for this review! I recently read this, expecting to love it, and was also baffled. My main source of bafflement was why Groff made the choice to single Marie out as the only woman smart enough or worthy enough to “deserve” individual thoughts and reflections and ideas. It felt reductive to the notion of what a community of women might have actually been like.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s