Groff is a heavily allusive writer whose narratives typically carry a freight of sophisticated references. In her new novel, Matrix, the work of Marie de France...provides Groff a literary springboard into a past whose features offer a mirror to our own time ... Perhaps the greatest pleasure of this novel is also its most subtle. Groff is a gifted writer capable of deft pyrotechnics and well up to the challenges she sets herself ... One senses she doesn’t so much struggle to create her vision but is borne aloft on it, which is the page-by-page pleasure as we soar with her.
... an inspiring novel that truly demonstrates the power women wield, regardless of the era. It has sisterhood, love, war, sex — and many graphic deaths, all entangled in a once-forgotten abbey in the English countryside ... With masterful wordplay and pacing, Groff builds what could have been a mundane storyline into something quite impossible to put down. The writing itself is a demonstration of power. Eschewing direct dialogue and traditional chapters for a three-part structure, the story starts slow but then picks up the pace, barreling through Marie's years at the convent ... The novel's prose is well constructed and filled with strong imagery that will remain embedded in your subconscious days later ... Her use of short but not entirely quick sentences, particularly at the start of the novel, is a tricky way of pacing a story that is written in such a formal tone ... Her allusions to female pleasure — such as masturbation and oral sex — are done as stealthily as her allusions to heinous actions such as rape, almost like a whisper that you might miss if you're not paying attention. But there are instances where allusions are not enough, and she is graphic, leaving little to the imagination when discussing death and sickness ... exposes the complexity of being a woman living in a world where men make all the rules, regardless of the era. But it also may leave you wondering whether this is a story about one woman's feminist aspirations — or her overzealous ambition.
Skirting the pitfalls of revisionist history, it is fiction neither as plodding realism nor as implausible feminist anachronism, but rather something in between and beyond: a rigorous, living vision of what could have been ... Groff beautifully captures Marie’s teenaged sulk ... Marie is not caught up in the exhaustive details of ordinary life in the 12th century, sparing the reader the encyclopedic data that can bog down historical novels ... As issues of bodily autonomy are once again thrust into the spotlight by developments in Texas abetted by the U.S. Supreme Court, reading Matrix is a balm. The insistence that a woman’s worth is tied to her physical self, rather than her intellect and spirit, is a dark cloud that has broken open numerous times in the West. If only it could be banished by an abbess, or a novel.
Now that we’ve endured almost two years of quarantine and social distancing, [Groff's] new novel about a 12th-century nunnery feels downright timely ... We need a trusted guide, someone who can dramatize this remote period while making it somehow relevant to our own lives. Groff is that guide largely because she knows what to leave out. Indeed, it’s breathtaking how little ink she spills on filling in historical context ... Though Matrix is radically different from Groff’s masterpiece, Fates and Furies, it is, once again, the story of a woman redefining both the possibilities of her life and the bounds of her realm ... Although there are no clunky contemporary allusions in Matrix, it seems clear that Groff is using this ancient story as a way of reflecting on how women might survive and thrive in a culture increasingly violent and irrational.
... feels both current and timely ... looks back in time to comment astutely on the world as we now know it, exploring big ideas about faith, gender, community and individualism ... Groff brings a bold originality to Matrix and a compassion for her characters, no matter how prickly some of them may be. This is a heartening story of one woman’s vision and creativity, unthwarted and flourishing, despite all odds.
Groff’s prose, for all its earthy vigour, is not always easy to untangle ... The novel is written in the present tense and while Groff gains a sense of immediacy by opting for this, she also loses some tonal variation. The narrative is rarely less than lively, however ... Groff rarely makes explicit any moral judgment, which—in a novel set in a medieval convent—is somehow unexpected. Instead, she argues powerfully, and somewhat topically, for a community in which 'there is a place here even for the maddest, for the discarded, for the difficult.'
Groff has created a heroine who is more or less the opposite of the little we know of Marie de France. To be fair, Groff is not writing a strict historical novel but a work of imagination, based on real medieval people and events. Still, it’s worth asking why she would choose Marie de France only to reject what makes that woman’s poems so remarkable. In Matrix, beauty is suspect, art and writing are powerless, sex is without passion, and strategy stands in for enchantment. The true ideal of this novel is work: vigorous, ruddy-cheeked, sweat-of-the-brow physical labor presented with the cheerfulness of a midcentury Communist propaganda poster. This is not to say that Matrix is not beautifully written. Groff can write a sentence with the spiky surprise of a good lyric poem, and while her own love of language has sometimes run away with her...here she deploys it with control ... Marie’s consolidation of her power is one of the most gripping movements in the novel ... Groff vividly captures the maneuvers a woman in the twelfth century, or any century, would have needed to make in order to prevail in an unfriendly world ... Less convincing is Marie’s reorganization of the abbey’s work, to which she brings the energy of a management consultant wielding a fresh Ivy League degree ... Why does Marie know so much at her age, while the other nuns are cartoonishly incapable of surviving on their own? ... The colorless, insipid, and above all inefficient monastery Marie finds is a stereotyped version of the medieval past ... Groff seems unwilling at any point to let her protagonist suffer defeat ... The result is not so much a novel as a hagiography ... The recognition that a woman’s desire for power is no purer than a man’s would be a remarkable twist in an otherwise uninterrupted encomium, if Groff had followed through on it. Instead, she rescues Marie from any responsibility for her actions.
Groff’s book cleverly extends beyond the written past to imagine other possibilities and to challenge the traditional record ... Groff takes seriously the history with which she engages along with the process of how that history was made—and by whom ... wickedly fun 'slashing' is exactly what Groff is doing, adding women into the story, queering the text, and capturing a fuller range of human experience through such amendments ... Groff’s worldbuilding offers a sweeping backdrop of crusades, plagues, religious visions, and social stratification to inform this tale of women’s resistance, desire, and power ... Marie’s vexed relationship with Eleanor, the Queen of England, becomes a major structural parallel. These two seemingly different women both gain power and yet are still contained by patriarchal authority—one in a convent, the other at times in a prison—adding further literary panache to this entertaining tale ... By utilizing the margins of history to depict the disempowered and forgotten, she writes a creative, intelligent work that will last.
Where does power come from? Can anyone harness it? And how can women best use it in a male-dominated world? Groff's new novel Matrix offers a mesmerizing glimpse into some of her conclusions. A bold, thrilling work that highlights the wild, wide range of Groff's imagination ... Through her rise as a formidable force for change, Marie charts a course that subverts gender rules, examines the limits of responsibility and redefines what it means to love and make a mark on the world ... Groff revels in these questions of faith and feminism, filling the novel with rich detail and unforgettable women. As climate change rattles our world, she can't resist a warning: Entropy, in fiction and in life, is the inevitable tragic endgame.
... a relentless exhibition of Groff’s freakish talent. In just over 250 pages, she gives us a character study to rival Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell or Robert Caro’s Robert Moses ... Of course, Marie’s divine inspiration and ability come not from God but from her creator Lauren Groff, who uses her insight and marvelous prose to give life to this formidable medieval nun and 'this strange abbey that she has built around her as a shell, a cathedral, a home.' Matrix is an unforgettable book – Marie, falling to her knees in a forest before Eve and the Virgin Mary, watching 'her kiss her with the kiss of her mouth' – ecstatic, refulgent, God-struck, heretical.
Groff has written a beautiful, unclassifiable book, a queer history that recovers a great poet from the past and fills her with glorious, corporeal life. Marie wrote moral fables and that’s one way of understanding Matrix, although its lessons are intricate and obscure, its vision of a closed female state far from utopian.
Groff’s curious narrative style, relying on summary over scene and indirect dialogue over conversation, may deter some readers, while others may imagine the rhythm of an Angevin raconteur. She nimbly navigates the bilingual, cross-cultural Plantagenet reign when English kings ruled over half of France as well as England ... While historical novels do take liberties with recorded events, Matrix creates an entire life for the illusive poet. Does the abiding enigma of the real Marie encumber or enhance the novel? Probably both.
Its premise is simple: the life of a medieval nun, the story of a rebellious teenager’s transformation into a respected spiritual leader. However, this plot synopsis does not do justice to the whimsy, empathy, and urgency that saturate the novel’s pages ... Matrix takes historical specificity seriously but eschews historical realism ... With a sure hand, Groff shows us Marie’s abbey as a utopia ... What if a utopia like Marie’s had been allowed to flourish? Matrix makes us nostalgic for this past, one we never had ... here is a novel where Groff is at the height of her powers, writing with honesty and conviction about what it means to make a meaningful life. Matrix, which has already been longlisted for the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction, is not to be missed.
Her new novel, Matrix, takes us to another world entirely, but one Groff paints just as confidently, and surprisingly [as her last book] ... Groff gives her fictional Marie a rich and intriguing story ... Matrix shines throughout with Groff’s lush and vivid prose and her dark sense of humor. She writes tender love scenes, striking mystical visions and even a rousing battle scene ... an unforgettable vision.
Groff’s prose has the formality and cadence associated with historical fiction, but she inserts playfulness and color into her narrative, showing charming, occasionally silly vignettes of daily life that give the abbey a distinctive realism. One of the novel’s pleasures is its depiction of Marie’s organizational skills ... Something about the setting of Groff’s novel makes its themes more palatable. It’s hard to say whether a story about a woman’s search for power could successfully depict a figure so committed to her own intellect as Marie if she inhabited the modern day ... in Marie’s virtuosity and cunning, in her lies and brilliance and scheming struggle against a hostile world, it is hard not to see the traces of some of the powerful women whom the Trump era defeated. This sublimation of politics into art is part of what gives Matrix its power. The modern girlboss is often presented as a monster of entitlement and egoism. But Groff’s Marie offers a more human and complicated vision of an intelligent woman, one who is driven by both a spiritual quest for god and an earthly quest for love.
... a highly distinctive novel of great vigour and boldness. From mystical visions that may or may not be divine, to the earthy business of abbey pigs, diseases and account books, Groff does it all with purpose and panache ... we are carried on the force of her style, and held by the strength of an intelligence that lets comedy and emotional complexity work together ... this is not historical fiction as an escape route from the present. It is an assertively modern novel about leadership, ambition and enterprise, and about the communal life of individuals ... Groff refuses easy feminist wins ... There is blessedly little lecturing and moralising in Matrix ... Those who love Marie describe 'a grandeur of spirit so vast that it takes one’s breath away'. There’s a grand spirit, too, in this novel that makes her.
This is really a novel of sisterhood, of women finding clever routes to claiming their power, given all the roadblocks men have historically thrown up before them. Groff’s prose is sometimes elegant and sometimes willfully serpentine, curving around in overly complicated loops...But Groff’s book achieves liftoff here and there, especially in the way she sketches the personalities of Marie’s fellow nuns.
Death, disaster and abuses of power are as frequent as Marie’s triumphs, and all are depicted with a degree of detail and specificity that make this historical fantasy feel far more real than the rickety allegorizing of Ms. Groff’s highly praised earlier novels ... For all its moral ambiguities, though, it is finally its spirit of celebration that gives this novel its many moments of beauty.
... simultaneously ambitious and unremarkable. Ambitious for revisioning a medieval woman’s life, but unremarkable given Groff’s experience weaving stories from history and imagination ... Groff deftly situates readers in the twelfth century via Marie’s visceral experiences ... Astute and tenderly devastating, Matrix embodies startling relevance for 21st-century readers.
Matrix is told in the present tense, a shortcut to immediacy, but spans decades, with nods to historical events — papal interdict, the children’s crusade. There is a slight tonal flatness as the years roll by, and Marie remains a little remote somehow, but Goff’s writing is muscular and precise, her themes wildly resonant. Women are dismissed and contained, subject to misogynist attacks and abuse, but gain power collectively — 'alone, together'. Shockingly, this message is as poignant today as it was, perhaps, 800 years ago.
Groff brings to vivid life the appalling conditions of the period, such as burying the sick “crown to toe in warm manure” to cure them. Yet she also finds much to admire in the rituals and rhythms of a monastic life devoted to prayer — and not an insignificant amount of steamy sex ... [Groff] uses her abundant storytelling gifts to knock her readers to the ground.
Matrix is no history textbook. Wreathed in dreamy prose, the action is focused on the absorbing movements of the abbey and on Marie's own visions, which have prescience far beyond their time. Yes, there's a day-to-day tranquility to the novel, but it's woven alongside fierce, primal feminism and a sly, budding blasphemy that produces a starkly modern sub-religion focused on the women and their physicality ... History swallows up her brief time in power, but Marie's accomplishments feel anything but trivial. At its heart, the book's message is simple: joy can exist in darkness. Greatness can bloom in small places ... Give this book to anyone who loves off-the-beaten-path historical fiction and ambitious, unapologetic women protagonists.
Matrix follows Marie as she makes her own biblical tower of sorts—in a splendidly sacrilegious way ... Marvelously blasphemous ... Though the realism, at first, seems a bit faulty (women with power, lesbians in the Middle Ages?), there’s no reason not to believe that this could have happened and been censured by the history books ... In prose that is poetic but never overwhelming, Matrix seeks to secure a place for women at Christianity’s not-so-round table and does so by being a rebellious book about love and gender roles. And though what Marie builds—and what Groff simultaneously builds through words—could be burned away by an angry mob, the message of a better future will always remain.
The strength of Matrix lies in its voice and perspective. Groff builds a world where the men are periphery, yet the patriarchal structures and subservience to men’s wills rooted in the women who drive this novel are still palpable. It is a fine line to walk for any woman who dares to go against the grain, and Groff walks that line beautifully through Marie. Pick up this book at the first chance you get! It is sure to be one everyone will be talking about.
Groff brilliantly recreates 12th-century England ... a propulsive, enchanting, and emotionally charged read ... Groff upends the underlying sexual tension in this convention, underscoring and exacerbating the unspoken irony ... In matters of sexuality, Groff brilliantly handles flashes of physical intimacy among her sisters — including Marie’s own occasional moments — with a moving and empathetic touch ... celebrates a maternal journey touchingly parallel to the uplifting spiritual temper of its time: a fresh attention to the feminine via the religious cult of Mary and the conventions of courtly romance ... Of course, uplifting matters have no place amid the clash of arms in the real, male-dominated world. In that light, the ultimate irony in Groff’s utopian sojourn shines through like a signal flare in the distance, both then and now.
... beautiful ... In her version of Marie de France, Groff has created a compelling and dynamic character. Marie is by turns likable and awful, kind and egocentric, and feels fully real on every page. She wisely lets readers decide what to make of Marie’s visions ... Groff’s prose is poetic, fluid and fanciful, with one eye on the sacred but two proverbial feet in the mundane ... an entertaining and provocative imagining of a life whose details have not survived, as well as a thoughtful and potent exploration of female power and spirit.
The book has an episodic quality, as new nuns enter the abbey and old ones die, yielding a rotating cast of supporting characters ... This fallacy of trying to see our own ideals in historical figures is one that Groff plays with throughout, making use of a third-person narrative voice which is able both to zoom in on Marie’s thoughts and comment from afar. Enchanting and intriguing, Matrix absorbs the reader into the medieval period without compelling them to depart entirely from the present.
Medieval life can seem far from our modern grasp, but Groff vividly describes the daily workings of the convent, from prayers to practical chores. She has done her research and it shows in the rich details she provides of working the fields, preparing meals, governing novices ... This story is similarly magical, a beautiful evocation of what women can achieve and what they can mean to each other.
Matrix affirms Groff’s originality ... You might imagine a nun’s life to be devoid of sensuality, yet Groff begs us look again, evoking sex and nature in luminous prose. She skilfully treads the line between archaism and accessibility (keep Google handy and expect to expand your medieval vocab), only faltering in Marie’s visions, which are strangely unreadable. The omniscient third-person narrative is sometimes close to Marie’s consciousness, sometimes grandly prophetic, foreshadowing events right up to today’s climate crisis. Despite the intense present tense, the lack of direct dialogue has a distancing effect; Matrix could have done with more speech and less description—and more on Marie’s literary output. Yet this is a remarkable novel: unusual, profound, transcendental.
... a gorgeously bold work that imagines the life of the late 12th-century poet Marie de France in order to explore the power of creativity and celebrate the sensuality of love between women ... Groff crafts a portrait of a woman both ahead of and out of her time in her desire for power and respect ... does so much more than give a voice to a relatively unknown historical figure; it deftly weaves together history and fantasy to paint an incandescent portrait of not only a powerful woman but a powerful idea, one that is still controversial almost a millennium since Marie de France lived—that women can only be fully realized when they are freed from the tyranny of the male gaze.
[Groff's] protagonist is loosely inspired by the woman known as Marie de France, about whom nothing is known for sure, except that she composed courtly Arthurian lais and Aesopian fables in Anglo-Norman in the late twelfth century. Although originally 'of France', she is thought to have lived in England, to have been connected to Eleanor of Aquitaine and the court of Henry II, and perhaps to have become an abbess. Her very mystery invites poetic licence, which Groff seizes with aplomb ... Groff is good, too, at conjuring the corporeality of medieval life ... Marie herself is a human being with a complex, nuanced, individual psychology, yet she is simultaneously a mythical figure. This makes sense, given that she inhabits a twelfth-century mindset in which there is no definitive distinction between the natural and supernatural, the secular and religious, the literal and allegorical. Such fluidity is captured in Groff’s narrative voice, half-poetic, half-grittily naturalistic. The real Marie de France may continue to elude historians, but the speculative fictions in Matrix combine to produce an unfailingly absorbing novel.
... a feat of storytelling by a master of fiction. It’s a spiritual and emotional fictionalized biography of Marie de France, an outcast offspring from the royal court of Eleanor of Aquitaine ... On the surface, it may sound almost droll, but this novel is anything but — it’s wicked and fun, it’s literary and adventurous, it’s heartbreaking and romantic and filled with love of almost every kind. There’s love for the abbey, the sisters, the earth and all that it provides. There’s love for all the women, and there is a veritable feast of women in every shape and age and temperament. It was moving and humorous, and gives the reader a fascinating glimpse into a life imagined and a life lived to its fullest in the darkest recesses of medieval Europe.
Scour the formal historical record and you won’t find much about the woman known as Marie de France beyond information that she lived in the 12th century and wrote a series of Breton lais, or short romantic rhymes. But in her latest novel, Lauren Groff generously imagines a complete, alternative life thrashing inside those silences. Matrix is a bold feminist tale of what Marie’s life might have looked, smelled and felt like ... Marie’s legacy, her prideful push for power, is depicted as flawed and more interesting for it ... I loved Groff’s 2015 novel Fates and Furies, but Matrix is a very different creature, and in my opinion, a superior one – a dazzling, primeval story of love, sex, power, community and care. Matrix glows with the fierce fire of sisterhood, like the one Marie’s ‘daughters’ see burning inside her. It’s one of the best novels of the year. Amen.
... a truly brilliant novel ... Groff describes the pangs of Marie’s exile piercingly ... thrilling study in audacity as Marie takes on any challengers with brutal decisiveness. The possibility of her slipping up makes every calculation as tense as a duel ... That tension is heightened by the knowledge that the more power Marie accrues, the more she is liable to be punished as a usurper of the natural order. Against a convincingly filthy and precarious medieval backdrop, Marie is a figure of dazzling complexity, and as much a hero as any of the chivalric idols her sex prevents her from being. When you google the title, it will all make sense.
... fascinating and brilliant ... captivating ... Groff acknowledges the quintessential power of womankind to propagate the species and never wavers in her reverence for religion, marriage or family. But her real focus here is what women can accomplish when they take a different path.
The problem with this is not so much the anachronism but the fact we guess Marie’s thinking and reactions in advance. The heresies...don’t seem that heretical; we can feel them coming. And given the countless times we are reminded of women’s underestimated resourcefulness and Marie’s all-conquering competence, brains and drive, any real sense of jeopardy about her path dissipates early on. We know this strong female leader will prevail ... But that does not prevent Matrix from being a well-paced read; nor does it spoil Groff’s delicate prose ... The novel’s best moments come when exploring the relationship between power, faith and the figurative, such as with Marie’s construction of an impenetrable labyrinth around the abbey ... For Marie understands that mystery is essential to reputation, and reputation is a source of power. It is a shame, then, that when it comes to Marie’s character, Groff fails to heed her own insight, trading in mystery for predictability.
Her radical dedication to protecting her sisters feels at once modern and ancient. But Groff is quick to remind us that this is not the 21st century ... This fallacy of trying to see our own ideals in historical figures is one that Groff plays with throughout, making use of a third-person narrative voice which is able both to zoom in on Marie’s thoughts and comment from afar ... Enchanting and intriguing, Matrix absorbs the reader into the medieval period without compelling them to depart entirely from the present.
Groff is a writer whose prose can do anything and occasionally does too much ... She can play the organ all stops pulled out and cause you to reverberate from within; she can pluck a few strings on the lute and make you sadder than you thought possible. While the counterpoint of crashing chords and sweet notes makes her prose seem unplaceable within the pantheon of contemporary fiction, Groff stands solidly within the American Gothic ... lightly researched ... As with Marie’s religious visions, these episodes of pleasure are interludes, not ultimately attached to the novel’s concerns ... There is a strange hurry to this novel of a slow time, the paragraphs that trip through decades, the lack of focus on Marie’s inner life as a monastic and writer, the sense of characters merely as foils to Marie’s plotting. The use of indirect discourse throughout the novel means that we have very little sense of individual voices. This solves the problem of vernacular speech in historical fiction, but it does muffle the characters. For a writer of Groff’s rare inventive powers, it is disappointing, too, that certain scenes seem pro forma, for example when Marie arrives at the abbey and dismounts her horse to land face-first into a pile of shit. Perhaps we need the tragedy before the farce, or perhaps we’ve seen this scene too recently on Netflix, but it strikes a tired note ... ends not with a bang but a whimper, as much of her fiction does despite its linguistic daring and outsize themes.
Out of the royal eye and left to her own devices, Marie discovers her power and becomes the leader she would never have been had she stayed at court. She learns the strengths and weakness of her sisters to build a religious empire of her own command. Her physical needs and carnal urges are satisfied by other sisters and throughout it all her ugliness is ever present. I’m not sure why ... There are many brilliant passages in the book and the commentary on women’s power—particularly the way women tend to thwart one another—is timely and moving. But, time passes swiftly in The Matrix and that isn’t always a good thing. While the protagonist Marie is a proto-feminist and her accomplishments are staggering and impressive, the gaps in time and the journalistic style of the book can feel like a rush to reveal the next installment of Marie’s life rather than a deep and thorough exploration of her character.
Splendid with rich description and period vocabulary, this courageous and spine-tingling novel shows an incredible range for Groff, and will envelop readers fully in Marie’s world, interior and exterior, all senses lit up. It is both a complete departure and an easy-to-envision tale of faith, power, and temptation.
Set in early medieval Europe, this book paints a rousing portrait of an abbess seizing and holding power ... The novel is at its best through Marie's early years of transforming the ruined, muddy convent, bit by bit, into a thriving estate, with a prosperous new scriptorium, brimming fields, and spilling flocks, protected by a forest labyrinth and spies abroad ... Marie has visions of the Virgin Mary, 19 in all, but these passages stay flat. Medieval mystics, unsurprisingly, write better about mysticism ... Groff’s trademarkworthy sentences bring vivid buoyancy to a magisterial story.
Groff fashions a boldly original narrative based on the life and legend of 12th-century poet Marie de France ... Groff fills the novel with friendships among the nuns, inspirational apparitions, and writings empowered by divine inspiration. Transcendent prose and vividly described settings bring to life historic events, from the Crusades to the papal interdict of 1208. Groff has outdone herself with an accomplishment as radiant as Marie’s visions.