I seem to have established a tradition of reading Lauren Groff late in the year. The last book I read in 2021 was her Fates and Furies and it ended up as the final addition to my best-of-the-year list. And now at the end of 2022, Groff is once again helping me close out my year of reading on a high note.
Matrix is a Masterpiece with a capital M. Oh. My God. This book.
The novel, published in 2021, begins in the year 1158. It features Marie, banished by her Queen to a remote and neglected royal abbey. She is to become their prioress. She is 17, with more common sense than holiness, but she obeys and sets out on her trusty warhorse to her new home.
Marie arrives at the abbey to find starving nuns and terrible conditions. And she is not what the nuns expected at all, this giantess of a girl, not at all pretty and seemingly clueless. Once Marie realizes that she won’t be called back to Queen Eleanor’s side, she decides to make a go of it and finds her footing as an effective leader.
Groff’s writing shines in Matrix and I marveled at her imagination: how can she know all of this stuff, did she almost become a nun herself? How does an author in the 21st century come up with a story about a nun in 1158?
Call it the Muse or witchcraft or pure creativity, whatever it is, Groff’s got it.
At first, things at the abbey are pitiful. But little by little Marie makes changes, rearranges roles, collects old debts and turns things around. Crops are planted, animals raised, new sources of income established. For example, Marie plucks the women who can read and write from their other duties and sets them to work in the new scriptorium, copying text, which brings in more wealth that anything else.
Matrix is eye-opening in that we get a deep peek into the fascinating world of nuns – really! – only to realize that they’re just like any group of women: smart, timid, brave, sweet, sour, petty, gossipy, vain, loving and lusty.
Marie grows smarter and shrewder as the years pass and she realizes that the outside world is too dangerous, she needs to protect her nuns and the abbey at all costs. She has several visions: grand, electric moments that she hurries to write down before she forgets any details. In one she sees a labyrinth, one that will keep the abbey safe, and she sets about bringing her vision to reality. Her nuns not only build the labyrinth but also defend it when attacked, in a horseback scene worthy of Dumas.
These are fierce holy women, not to be underestimated.
Marie’s relationship with Queen Eleanor is one of the best parts of Matrix. On the surface Eleanor is everything Marie is not: she’s beautiful and regal, and Marie loves her fervently. But Marie is as smart and as sharp as Eleanor and it’s fun to be a spectator to their conversations as they parry with subtle little digs and outright scorn.
I listened to the audiobook version of Matrix first, then read the physical book a second time. The audiobook narrator, Adjoa Andoh, is marvelous. Everything about her works perfectly with the story: her accent, her emphasis, and the voices, especially her Eleanor who just drips with haughty disdain. Andoh puts on a captivating show.
Of course, it’s Groff’s material that Andoh is showcasing. I’m in awe of Lauren Groff and her storytelling talent. She’s brash, authoritative and dares to take chances as she writes. And then there’s her wicked sense of humor, at once wise and observant, cunning and delicious.
Matrix is a story about women and the power we collectively have (if only we would use it). Marie and her sisters accumulate great wealth and achieve great things, and because of this they’re perceived as dangerous.
Marie’s final vision makes you think: what if… It’s a bold vision that I will not spoil for you. Nor will I discuss the shocking finish, just know that I gasped “Nooooooo!” as I read the words.
Matrix is sensational. I’m sure I’ll come back to it again via the audiobook for the sheer pleasure of it and I hope you give this surprising and compelling novel a try.