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12th century sisterhood is powerful in Lauren Groff’s ‘Matrix’
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12th century sisterhood is powerful in Lauren Groff’s ‘Matrix’

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"Matrix" by Lauren Groff; Riverhead Books (260 pages, $28)

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In her 2018 story collection, "Florida," Lauren Groff gave readers an unexpected and indelible portrait of the state she has lived in for years.

Her new novel, "Matrix," takes us to another world entirely, but one Groff paints just as confidently, and surprisingly.

The book begins in the year 1158 as a 17-year-old girl rides out of a forest on a winter day and catches her first sight of an isolated abbey — the last place she wishes to be, but the place where she will likely spend the rest of her life.

Her name is Marie, and Groff based her on a historical person, Marie de France, believed to be the first woman to write poetry in French. Almost nothing is known about her life, not even her true identity. But Groff gives her fictional Marie a rich and intriguing story.

Born to one of seven sisters, “a famous family of viragoes,” Marie, like her mother and aunts, has skills uncommon among women in the Middle Ages. Not only can she read and write in several languages, she can fight with a sword, hunt with a bow and arrow and ride a warhorse. As a child, she accompanied her family on one of the Crusades.

Her beloved mother died when Marie was 12, and the girl was stripped of her mother’s property and sent to live at the royal English court.

That might seem an unlikely fate for an orphan, but Marie’s mother was raped at age 13 by the father of Henry II, so Marie is the “bastardess half sister” (well, one of them) of the king.

Marie doesn’t much care about the king, but she is dazzled by his queen, Eleanor of Aquitane, “all bosom and golden hair and sable fur lining the blue robe and jewels dripping from ears and wrists and shining chapelet and perfume strong enough to knock a soul to the ground.” Eleanor is much more than a pretty face — she is one of the most powerful women in Europe.

She seems at a loss, however, to find a suitable husband for Marie: “She, a rustic gallowsbird? Three heads too tall, with her great rough stomping about, with her terrible deep voice, her massive hands and her disputations and her sword practicing?”

Instead, the queen tells Marie, she will become the prioress of a remote royal abbey: “Anyone with eyes could see she had always been meant for holy virginity.”

Being sent to a convent was not an unusual destiny for women in those times. Some girls became nuns out of a deep spiritual vocation, but many were sent off by their families as damaged goods, too mentally or physically disabled, too rebellious or promiscuous, too inconvenient a stepchild or unattractive a daughter. The families, many of them aristocratic, paid a dowry to the abbey, and the abbey gained another pair of hands for the constant work there. Whether the young women liked it or not wasn’t a consideration

The abbey Marie enters as both novice and prioress (a sort of second in command) is in bad shape. Only about 20 nuns, many of them sickly, live there, starving amid a famine. The building is rundown, the surrounding farm neglected. The abbess, Emme, is nearly blind and “terrifically mad, if in a kindly way.”

After her shock and sorrow wear off, Marie begins to find her way into life at the abbey. She is first assigned to sort out its account books, which are a holy mess, and discovers its poverty has more to do with unpaid rents on its lands than with spiritual aims, a problem she promptly solves.

Later she replaces the abbey’s unprofitable silk making with a scriptorium, where literate nuns copy books by hand (Johannes Gutenberg and the printing press being a couple of centuries in the future). The abbey undercuts the price charged for the same work by monks at a nearby monastery and soon has another solid income stream.

Practical rather than pious, Marie stops assigning chores to those least able to do them (because humility and abasement are considered virtues) and instead puts the best cooks in the kitchen, the skilled gardener in the garden, the mad but talented Sister Gytha to paint an image of Mary Magdalene on the chapel wall. To make those assignments, she learns to understand the other sisters as individuals and, often, to love them.

Under Marie’s leadership — she is chosen to be abbess after Emme’s death — the abbey grows and becomes self-sufficient, and its women learn that isolation from the world of men brings them many kinds of power. When Marie proposes an enormous project, a labyrinth made of living trees to surround the abbey, it’s understood not only as an act of prayer — labyrinths were a part of countless medieval churches — but as a means of maintaining that isolation.

As Marie matures into middle age and beyond, she never forgets Eleanor. As she becomes a manager, a strategist, a leader, she mirrors in many ways the woman she adores. And, it turns out, Eleanor has not forgotten Marie.

"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.

In her lyrical novel Arcadia, about a 1970s commune, Groff examined the tension between the individual and the group; in her brilliant "Fates and Furies," she focused on a woman taking control of her own story. In "Matrix" she brings those paths together in an unforgettable vision.

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