Join us as we dive into Lauren Groff’s latest novel, Matrix. This short, unusual novel is a fictional account of the life of 12-century poet Marie de France, a cast-off from Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court, exiled to be Prioress at a run-down abbey inhabited by starving nuns. Devastated and grieving the young Marie thinks only of regaining the queen’s favour and returning to court. Gradually, though, she comes to see that if she is to stay, she must change, and the abbey with her.
The book has been a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist and a hit with fellow authors. Brit Bennett (The Vanishing Half) describes it as a book that ‘explores female ambition, creativity and passion with electrifying prose and sparkling with. A propulsive, captivating read.’
But never mind all that, what did Laura’s book club think? Does Matrix make for a good book club book? We put it to the test as we’re joined by pod-regulars Phillip Chaffee and Sarah Oliver to discuss it.
Listen via the media player above or your favourite podcast app here.
At the end of every show we always come up with follow-on reads you might like to try for book club. Inspired by Matrix, here are our picks.
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey
Set in an isolated village at the end of the 15th century The Western Wind tells of the death of a man swept away by the river. Was it murder or suicide or an accident? The answer is important as it affects whether the body can be buried with rites and ceremony or in shame. The village priest, John Reve, must investigate. Laura loved the way Harvey brought cold, wet, windy, muddy medieval England to life, and the claustrophobic intensity of village life in an age when people didn’t travel. There’s a lot to discuss.
Florida by Lauren Groff.
Matrix got our guest Sarah Oliver thinking of other favourite reads by Lauren Groff. She recommends Florida, enjoying the way each story takes you to a different place and a different time, and all are rooted in the natural world. The publishers say: ‘Lauren Groff brings her electric storytelling to a world in which storms, snakes and sinkholes lurk at the edge of everyday life, but the greater threats are of a human, emotional and psychological nature. Among those navigating it all are a resourceful pair of abandoned sisters; a lonely boy, grown up; a restless, childless couple; a searching, homeless woman; and an unforgettable conflicted wife and mother.’ It was one of Barack Obama’s books of the year. We also love short story collections for book club, as there’s enough variety and interest that everyone is going to find something to respond to.
Autumtide of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga
It’s likely after reading Matrix that you’ll want nothing more than to sink into more books about the middle ages, and for that our guest Phil Chaffee thinks you can do no better than this ‘gorgeous’ book, recently released in coffee-table book form with a new English translation. The publishers describe it as ‘one of the most perceptive and influential analyses of the late medieval period’ while Phil just can’t get enough of the rich details of life in Burgundian Europe, lavishly illustrated with paintings and manuscript illustrations. Not so much a discussion book as one for those in book club who want to luxuriate in the medieval world a little longer.
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden
As one Goodreads reviewer puts it, ‘If you like your nun stories with plenty of sexual tension, this one is for you’. A group of nuns travel from Ireland to the Indian Himalayas with the intention of starting a new convent in an old palace (that was once a harem). All of the nuns take with them their own certainties about their role, their faith and the practicalities of life, certainties that are enjoyably upended once they arrive. Mr Dean, the manager employed by the palace owners, provides the element of simmering sexual tension, while all the nuns are affected by the extraordinary natural beauty that surrounds them. Godden grew up in colonial India and this novel is full of beautifully observed details about the tension between European interlopers and the local inhabitants. An excellent read and full of layers for discussion.
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
A short work of historical fiction about an interesting, eccentric poet, philosopher and writer in the 14th century, Margaret Cavendish. Married to William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, Margaret was pioneering in her belief that women had as much right to read, write and think about the world around them as men. She wrote the first science-fiction novel, and although the society she was a part of were shocked and scandalized by her, she had the unwavering support of her husband and did find her admirers in the intellectual world. Kate adored this hidden-gem of a novel published in 2016. Perfect for book club, if you’re not doing Matrix, you should do this!
Other books mentioned were Arcadia by Lauren Groff and The Corner that Held Them and Lolly Willowes by Silvia Townsend Warner
Watch that Lauren Groff / Jia Tolentino interview.