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Staff Picks: Matrix by Lauren Groff

Cover artI had seen positive reviews for Matrix by Lauren Groff, so when I found the book listed in the Recreational Reading Collection, I picked it up. I have been interested in the history of the Middle Ages since high school, and reading historical fiction about the period inspired me to pursue Medieval Studies as one of my majors at Rutgers. As I read, I kept comparing Groff’s fictional retelling of familiar history with what I remembered from my classes and independent study. While the author takes some creative liberties, she has written a fascinating novel about a complex, powerful woman carving out a place for herself and other women in a highly patriarchal society.

The novel is a fictional chronicle of the life of Marie de France, beginning with her arrival at an abbey in the English countryside at the age of 17 and following her through decades of conflicts both personal and political. Marie was a real historical figure, best known for composing twelve Lais (also spelled Lays), or narrative poems, and a collection of Fables based on those of the Greek author Aesop. Marie’s works are now considered classics of Medieval literature, and the Lais in particular are viewed as emblematic of the “Courtly Love” tradition. She is an interesting choice for a protagonist, considering we know so little about her. In fact, we only know her name thanks to a single comment in the epilogue of the Fables: “Marie ai nun, si sui de France [Marie is my name and I am from France].” Historians have proposed several possible candidates for the “real” Marie’s identity. Notable among these is Mary, Abbess of Shaftesbury and illegitimate half-sister to King Henry II of England.

Groff takes this theory as the starting point for her protagonist’s journey. Seventeen-year-old Marie is sent to the convent on the orders of Queen Eleanor. There she takes up the post of Prioress, essentially second-in-command of the abbey. At first, the other nuns are wary of this teenager suddenly placed in a position of power over them, but as the plot progresses, they grow to respect her leadership and resolve. When she becomes Abbess, Marie devotes her considerable intelligence and willpower to making the abbey a safe haven for the women under her leadership.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is its focus on the relationships between the characters. Marie’s (apparently unrequited) love for Queen Eleanor is a recurring theme throughout the story, even inspiring Marie to pen her famous Lais. There are adversarial relationships with the abbey’s first prioress and, later, a young novice who shows traits of religious mysticism and threatens Marie’s power in the abbey. Marie’s friendship with Ruth, a novice when Marie entered the abbey, also plays a key role, with the latter challenging some of Marie’s decisions later in the book.

Without spoiling too much, I will say that there were a couple of points in the book where the author took some historical liberties. As someone with a background in Medieval Studies, these stood out to me, but overall I don’t think they detract from enjoyment of the novel. Matrix is a compelling, character-driven story that brings a mysterious Medieval figure to vivid life.

For more information about Marie de France, see: