Lauren Groff ’01’s new novel “Matrix” follows a 12th century nunnery’s rise under the leadership of Abbess Marie. After being declared unsuitable for marriage, Marie leaves her life with her stepmother, the Queen — she is an illegitimate child of nobility — and her lover, Cecily, to become a prioress at the abbey. She lives there from age 17 to 72, eventually becoming abbess — the mother of the abbey.
After her appointment to abbess, Marie receives a series of 19 visions from the Virgin Mary and grows convinced that the abbey must be isolated from society, going so far as to create a labyrinth surrounding the grounds to keep others out. Under her leadership, the abbey grows from destitute to prosperous and lucrative. Along the way, the novel explores the relationships between the nuns, many of them gay, and their relationships to the world beyond the abbey.
Though ripe for analysis, “Matrix” is not quite suitable for a leisurely read. The novel has little dialogue and is about 60 percent description, particularly in the first half. Fortunately, the descriptions in the book are largely rich and concise, although it occasionally spends too long on unimportant details. There is little description of the labyrinth Marie orders to be built, but we are meant to feel like those who visit the abbey: blindfolded, led only by someone who knows every turn.
The descriptions elevate the novel and take precedence over much of the actual story. The novel has no male characters, which creates a sense of a true feminine utopia, with few mentions of God, but many mentions of the Virgin Mary. The story it tells is both deeply religious and profane. The nuns seem to worship the Virgin Mary over God, something a few nuns question but is inconsequential to the overall plot. Deliberate in every word, “Matrix” is not for light entertainment, better suited as a literary novel.
The pacing within “Matrix” is jarring. The story takes place over 55 years, and the only indication of time the reader receives is Marie’s age. The novel skips decades without warning. Marie moves to the abbey, but beyond small discomforts and issues with the abbey’s wealth, there is no clear conflict that the plot focuses around. Marie’s visions do not start until midway through the novel, and there is so little context for them that they seem inconsequential at first. The abbey’s labyrinth is one of Marie’s grandest gestures, yet it is only mentioned a handful of times. There are a fair amount of details regarding the financial rise of the abbey, but they are overshadowed by an emphasis on the relationships in the novel. Although relationships are the foundation of stories, there were too many characters in the story for all of them to be fully fleshed out. There are a few romantic relationships between the women, seen as a necessity in the abbey, but only that of Marie and her childhood best friend Cecily is fully explored. Cecily is a one-dimensional character, but their relationship is nevertheless one of the strongest parts of the novel.
The idea of independence is contrasted with the options for women at the time: getting married or becoming a nun. Throughout the novel, the nuns challenge this idea, with one of the obates — a girl raised within the convent — deciding to get married and becoming head of finances for the abbey. The nuns cut themselves off from society in an attempt to preserve their way of life from outside influences. Yet, their isolation leads to no real consequence. As with Marie’s visions, this plot thread was not explored deeply enough to have much of an impact on the book as a whole.
Overall, the book feels unfinished. It has a definite ending, but it lacks a plot besides simply following Marie’s life. It is hard to find an overarching conflict throughout the novel. There are troubles within the abbey, but they are quickly resolved and have little lasting impact. The closest thing to a conflict is when Marie seals the abbey off from the world, but this is so rarely discussed that it cannot be called a real conflict. The novel seems more like a series of vignettes than a narrative with a complete plot. The prose and writing style is good, but the lack of a full plot makes the novel feel more like an extended short story.
“Matrix” takes an uncommon historical stance, as there are few historical fiction novels regarding the Middle Ages and even fewer focusing on women and queer relationships in that time period. Yet, it is not a light read. It is a novel to let simmer rather than read over a weekend. It has a similar tone to Nick Laird’s 2017 novel “Modern Gods,” another observation of profane and religious zeal, though set in modern times. Neither novel focuses on the religious aspect as much as expected, but instead on the relationships between characters. It is worth a read simply for the uncommon subject matter, but it is not a vacation read.