"Matrix," by Lauren Groff

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Matrix is the quasi biography of Marie, an illegitimate millstone around the neck of Eleanor of Aquitaine, living in the second half of the twelfth century. Marie is too tall, raw-boned and unappealing to be married off and consigned to obscurity, so when she is 17, Eleanor banishes her instead to a nunnery. She is thus sent from the comfort and gaiety of the French court to the boggy and foggy island of Britain. In Lauren Groff’s hands, Marie’s journey promptly gratifies the reader’s expectations of Marie’s mettle, and then grows to include her magisterial and deft stewardship of the abbey. And beyond these rewards, we are treated to Marie’s mystic side, in which she sees rapturous visions which guide her earthly agenda and impress the nuns in her care of her saintly nature.

I do wonder whether Groff set out to propound the life of a saint, but it doesn’t matter. The life she provides us is, in the most straightforward way, that of a woman of vast abilities and an indomitable will. She carves out for herself and her “daughters”—the nuns in her care—an island of safety and devotion in a very hostile and suspicious world. She guides her charges through treacherous times; she takes over an impoverished abbey and guides it through the “interesting times” of Richard the Lionheart versus his royal brother John, all the while building its holdings—a labyrinth confounds outsiders who would broach the defenses—and it becomes the leading abbey in terms of wealth and prestige on the entire British island.

Groff endows her heroine with impressive political savvy and resourcefulness—this is my favorite feature of the character and the novel. This shrewdness serves her well with her ongoing jousts with the outside world, particularly with her monarch and former close associate, Empress Eleanor. Marie also must call upon her wits when dealing with the sometimes rebellious nuns serving under her. The author handles these episodes with a deft touch, showing the abbess’s intelligence and indomitability in shining, gratifying form.

So this is a book portraying a petit monarch, a woman who decides to build an impregnable fortress-like settlement for herself as much as for English nuns. Groff shows her further assurance (as though any were necessary) as a novelist of the very first rank. Unreservedly: take it up!