Book Review

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Genre | Historical Fiction
Page #s | 260
Publishing Date | September 2021

Lauren Groff returns with her exhilarating first new novel since the groundbreaking Fates and Furies.

Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, deemed too coarse and rough-hewn for marriage or courtly life, 17-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease.

At first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions. Marie, born the last in a long line of women warriors and crusaders, is determined to chart a bold new course for the women she now leads and protects. But in a world that is shifting and corroding in frightening ways, one that can never reconcile itself with her existence, will the sheer force of Marie’s vision be bulwark enough?

Equally alive to the sacred and the profane, Matrix gathers currents of violence, sensuality, and religious ecstasy in a mesmerizing portrait of consuming passion, aberrant faith, and a woman that history moves both through and around. Lauren Groff’s new novel, her first since Fates and Furies, is a defiant and timely exploration of the raw power of female creativity in a corrupted world.

Goodreads

I read this book shortly after reading Thomas Cahill’s nonfiction book Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art, and WOW is that a great combination! In Matrix, historical figures are fictionalized and fleshed out in a way that makes the time period (early 12th century) accessible and relatable.

Marie has the misfortune to be both a bastardess and as a tall, masculine woman. She is therefore exiled from polite society to an abbey, where she finds she is able to wield female power in a time when women were powerless. Echoing the historical figure of Hildegard of Bingen, Marie raises her abbey from obscurity to influence and deals with the subsequent discontent this raises. It’s an awesome example of historical feminism that is not anachronistic.

In fact, this book is as much about life in the middle ages as it is about Marie; the joys and, more often, the squalor of life is vividly portrayed, and the threat of death from the simplest of sources is ever-present. Additionally, Marie is not a religious woman, but religion is baked into the fabric of society and is therefore inescapable. She grows to love the abbey and its nuns, and her relationship to visions and sacraments walks a fascinating fine line between appreciation and power.

This is a blog about queer books, and so far this review might seem to imply a lack of queerness. Don’t worry! The abbey is full of women who have pledged themselves to chastity, but the medieval conception of this promise is limited to foregoing the pleasures of men. My absolute favorite part is the portrayal of courtly love from a woman’s point of view, as Marie loves Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine from afar and with all the devotion of the most loyal knight.

Who Do I Recommend This Book To?

Matrix is a nerdy book, but it’s going to fulfill a very specific niche for my sapphic history buffs!

Check out our Queer Lil Library for more book recommendations and reviews!

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