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There is virtually nothing known about the medieval English poet called Marie de France. Even her name and French origins cannot be confirmed. What is known is her poetry, The Lais of Marie de France, 12 short romantic rhyming tales of love and lust, knights and ladies, magic and symbolism. Some scholars have suggested that the mysterious Marie was born in France of noble blood and later lived as an abbess at an English convent. And many have suggested that she would’ve been familiar to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France. It is this possible relationship that is at the center of Lauren Groff’s beautiful new novel.

MATRIX opens in 1158. Seventeen-year-old Marie, originally of Le Maine and lately living in the royal court in England, is riding out alone to her new home --- a poor and desolate village abbey where nuns are dying of illness and starvation. Marie, tall, strong and independent, was sent to the abbey by her beloved Eleanor. Eleanor’s decision to send Marie away to a lifelong vocation is devastating to Marie, not in the least because she is in love with the beautiful and mighty queen.

"MATRIX is 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."

Yet, shortly after arriving at the abbey, Marie begins to see spaces where she can introduce her own ideas, exert her authority, and improve the lives of the women who live, pray and work there. The novel follows Marie over decades of her dedication to the abbey. Her love for Eleanor never dies, but her work, her relationships with the other nuns, and, increasingly, her vision-driven demand for more control and power become so consuming that those feelings can simmer instead of flame.

Marie pulls the abbey out of poverty and surrounds herself with competent and creative women to create a viable place of commerce and religion. She is often driven by visions that lead her to undertake massive projects, such as forest labyrinths and splendid buildings. The visions of Mary and Eve connect her with the holy mothers --- perfect and flawed --- of her faith. Her most personal creations, her lais, are penned first to Eleanor but over time become expressions of her deepest heart, beliefs, memories and passions.

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. Whether godsent or not, they drive her and impact the women around her. Thus the results help drive the story. A matrix is a mother. Here, Marie is the kind of mother who builds, shapes, molds, rules and creates more than she nurtures or tends. The juxtaposition of the expected role and behavior of medieval European women --- be they queens, nuns or peasants --- and what Marie does with her life and to the lives of those around her is what makes the book so interesting. Groff’s prose is poetic, fluid and fanciful, with one eye on the sacred but two proverbial feet in the mundane.

MATRIX is 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.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on September 10, 2021

by Lauren Groff

  • Publication Date: September 6, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 1594634505
  • ISBN-13: 9781594634505