"Matrix" | Reviewed by Nelson Appell
“Matrix” is the first book I’ve read by Lauren Groff, and what a book it is. I was transfixed by this 12th century story told partially through the lens of feminism. That’s a tough line to walk, but Groff does it with grace that never distracts from the story. Honestly, I was surprised how invested I was in the workings of this 12th century abbey.
The novel is based on the writings of Marie de France, a 12th century author of poetry and verse. Groff takes what little we know of Marie’s life as a fertile field for exploring the life of a 12th century woman whose life takes a turn she never wanted.
Marie is not a handsome woman, with a body that looks more fit for physical exertion in the fields than wearing noble finery. She is judged as unmarriageable material. Exiled from a French Court to a poor abbey in England, Marie is stunned to find herself a prioress surrounded by poverty and malnourished sisters who do not welcome her.
She does not want to be part of the abbey. She longs to be returned to court. She writes letters to Queen Eleanor, in hopes she will be restored, but Eleanor does not write back. The opening chapters are sad, as Marie adapts to life in the poor abbey. Throughout the novel, Marie struggles with her desire to return to Eleanor’s side.
As time passes, Marie’s restless body and mind turn their attention to the abbey’s potential. Her ambition takes central stage. Unlike her Sisters, Marie’s mind won’t be constrained or limited to what is already there. Under Marie’s management, over the decades the abbey turns from a malnourished mud pit into a thriving community. That brings new challenges, as a successful abbey attracts attention, bringing Marie new political and religious challenges.
This could have been a more mundane character study story, but Groff is such a skilled writer she instead turns it into a page turner. She eschews traditional dialogue and adjusts her sentence form to heighten the intensity of her story. Thematically speaking, this is rich novel. Groff tackles ambition versus altruism, the line between belief and delusion, exile and the longing to return, and much else.
But “Matrix” itself is about the life of Marie and the life of the abbey, and the legacy she leaves behind her. This is a great novel, and sure to be much-read by book clubs in the coming years.