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Lauren Groff returns with her exhilarating first new novel since the groundbreaking Fates and Furies.

Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, deemed too coarse and rough-hewn for marriage or courtly life, 17-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease.

At first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions. Marie, born the last in a long line of women warriors and crusaders, is determined to chart a bold new course for the women she now leads and protects. But in a world that is shifting and corroding in frightening ways, one that can never reconcile itself with her existence, will the sheer force of Marie's vision be bulwark enough?

Equally alive to the sacred and the profane, Matrix gathers currents of violence, sensuality, and religious ecstasy in a mesmerizing portrait of consuming passion, aberrant faith, and a woman that history moves both through and around. Lauren Groff's new novel, her first since Fates and Furies, is a defiant and timely exploration of the raw power of female creativity in a corrupted world.

260 pages, Hardcover

First published September 7, 2021

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About the author

Lauren Groff

53 books5,524 followers
Lauren Groff was born in Cooperstown, N.Y. and grew up one block from the Baseball Hall of Fame. She graduated from Amherst College and has an MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Hobart, and Five Points as well as in the anthologies Best American Short Stories 2007, Pushcart Prize XXXII, and Best New American Voices 2008.

She was awarded the Axton Fellowship in Fiction at the University of Louisville, and has had residencies and fellowships at Yaddo and the Vermont Studio Center.

She lives in Gainesville, Florida, with her husband, Clay, and her dog, Cooper.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 7,092 reviews
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 120 books160k followers
June 21, 2021
This is pretty exceptional. A novel about a 12th century abbey and the nun who leads it into prosperity after being banished there is not a story I would have thought I might enjoy. But I did. This is gloriously written. The level of detail of 12th century life is remarkable. Marie, the heart of this novel, is fierce and formidable. The research that made this novel possible is impressive. The ending falters as if it didn’t quite know where to end. There were a couple of things that were hard to visualize. You’ll know what I mean when you get there. Really enjoyed this, though. Also I am quite glad I wasn’t a woman in the 12th century. No thanks.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,491 reviews2,717 followers
August 1, 2021
I need to say that my 2-star rating is entirely subjective (what else would it be?) and that other readers liked this far more than me. I would venture to add that the less one knows of Marie de France and her writings, the easier it might be to fall into this book. In fact, the hook of 'Marie de France' is precisely that, a hook on which to hang a story that could have been about any modern fantasy of a powerful medieval woman's life - it doesn't really touch base with what we learn about the real Marie from her writings, more of which later.

What I enjoyed about this book, particularly at the start, is the energetic writing. Groff almost figuratively encapsulates her story on the opening page: 'in the fields, the seeds uncurl in the dark cold soil, ready to punch into the freer air' - just as Marie, only seventeen, is the 'seed' of the powerful woman she will become, working through the 'cold dark' of the abbey to 'punch' her way to some kind of freedom. There are also some lovely snappy descriptions that made me smile: on the first appearance of Eleanor, for example:
Queen Eleanor had appeared in the doorway of Marie's chamber, all bosom and golden hair and sable fur lining the blue robe and jewels dripping from ears and wrists and shining chaplet and perfume strong enough to knock a soul to the floor.

However, almost immediately we're removed from the court and Marie's life in an abbey just didn't fundamentally grab me: she starts off by questioning Christianity (not really a position available for a medieval person) but then later becomes devout, writing of her spiritual visions, without the transition really coming to life. Similarly, Marie has a super-hero trajectory where she almost single-handedly defeats disease, poverty, hunger, classism, misogyny and turns the abbey into a showplace all without much effort. The years flash past 'Marie is forty-five... the abbey is rich... Marie is forty-seven. From Rome, from Paris, from London her spies write swift panicked letters: Jerusalem has fallen again to the infidel. Marie weeps' (all this in half a page).

But I guess my biggest disappointment is that I came to this with the expectation that it would imaginatively fill out Marie's status as a female author and poet (not the first known French female poet - there were trobairitz, or female troubadours, before her). But in the book the Lais are written in half a page at 15% and that's it: 'What has come to Marie is a Breton lai in rhyming lines, sudden and beautiful, in its entirety. Her hands begin to shake in her lap. She will write a collection of lais, translated to the the fine musical French of the court. She will send her manuscript as a blazing arrow forward to her love and when it strikes, it will set that cruel heart afire.'

Now, I do like that this fictional Marie is in love with Eleanor and addresses her manuscript to Henry II in the hope of making Eleanor jealous, and the arrow of love/cruel heart afire is nicely medieval. But it's a sparse engagement with a female author whose authentic voice in the Prologue to her actual Lais is far more ambitious and literarily conscious:
Anyone who has received from God the gift of knowledge and true eloquence has a duty not to remain silent [...] For this reason I began to think of working on some good story and translating a Latin text into French, but this would scarcely have been worthwhile, for others have undertaken a similar task. So I thought of lays which I had heard and did not doubt, for I knew it full well, that they were composed, by those who first began them and put them into circulation, to perpetuate the memory of adventures they had heard. I myself have heard a number of them and do not wish to overlook or neglect them. I have put them into verse, made poems from them and worked on them late into the night.

~ From Penguin Classics, The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess

What a shame, then, that the Marie who explicitly speaks in her poems of translating narratives from Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Latin into medieval French (romanz, or franceis) so that they become memorialised isn't the Marie who appears in this novel. And her intellectual endeavours and hard work ('I worked on them late into the night') almost disappear from this novel.

So I admit there was a mismatch between my expectations and the novel that Groff has written - bear in mind that plenty of other reviewers have loved this.

Thanks (and apologies!) to Heinemann Hutchinson for an ARC via NetGalley.

Profile Image for Darryl Suite.
522 reviews418 followers
October 15, 2022
Here’s the thing: gorgeous writing, but I wasn’t invested at all. I really loved the first chapter; convinced I was in store for a new classic. Unfortunately, my interest waned shortly afterward. There were flashes of pure genius, but my biggest problem is that there were no high stakes whatsoever. Every bit of conflict was resolved almost as quickly as it started. Years passed in a matter of pages (sometimes on the same page). And Marie is written in almost a saintly/superhero kind of way: she can do no-wrong, can do everything, can resolve everything very quickly. As a reader, where’s the fun in that? The writing was exquisite, which I appreciated. Real talk: I wanted to love this, but it bored me.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews601 followers
September 12, 2021
Breathtakingly beautifully written…..
WONDERFUL as can be……
Lauren Groff is STAND OUT TALENTED!!! Truly one of our most gifted authors of our day!!!
I was worried before I started this— afraid I wouldn’t connect with the time period, plot, or history.
I had ‘nothing’ to worry about — NOTHING!!

I felt complete trust in the palm of Lauren’s hands … transported to another time another day another world….
Incredibly engrossing- and powerful. I just loved it - love Lauren Groff more after this novel than ever before!!

Lauren’s dedication “For all my sisters”…. are four words they deepen in experience the further along we read.

“How much less beauty she would have brought into this flawed and difficult life if she had been forced to be without her sisters who loved her”.

I’ve pages of notes — so many powerful sentences I ‘wanted’ to highlight and read again….
but keeping this mini review short…

One more small excerpt to think about….

“Marie says, Goda, do you not think the Virgin Mary, though born a mere woman, is the most precious jewel of any human born to a womb? Is our Virgin not the most perfect vessel, chosen so that in her own womb the Word can become human?”

Loved it passionately!!!
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
September 12, 2021

I may not understand Groff’s intention with this book. Or perhaps I do, in which case I don’t like it. It is historical fiction only in the broadest sense that a woman called Marie Abbess of Shaftesbury did exist. Anything else is mostly legend. And Groff’s casual conflation of two historical characters on the basis of a shared given first name (Marie of France, a contemporary but very different woman than Marie d'Anjou) seems a bit out of line even in fiction. It seems to me the book is much more a feminist polemic. It is obviously a vision of a feminine utopia, a Shakerism without the men anywhere in sight, and contentedly gay.

The problem is that Marie uses increasingly ‘male’ tactics to get and keep control over her visionary paradise. She begins with fraud, moves on to manipulation and intimidation, and ultimately resorts to violence in order to get her way. It seems to me that her female-only hideaway is just another form of domination in a world ruled by domination.

Anyway, here are my notes to justify my conclusion. Beware: spoilers ahead if you care about reading the book without prejudice:


Marie wants it all, or at least everything that the 12th century has to offer - ridin’, huntin’, and shootin’, with a well-prepared feast of roast swan afterwards, which she can enjoy wearing the latest fashions from France. As the illegitimate child of Geoffrey of Anjou, she reckons she has the right to such things. But the Empress Matilda thinks otherwise, so off she’s packed to Angleterre.

Marie is a woman’s woman (nudge, wink) who became imprinted (enamoured, obsessed) with the good Lady Eleanor of Aquitaine (her half-sister) while on a purported Women’s Crusade to Jerusalem (a sort of medieval Hadassah cruise one supposes, which it was not historically - wives did accompany husbands; Eleanor was along for the ride, armor and all). Marie is hopeful that her devotion to Eleanor, now Queen of the English as well as the French will earn her the points necessary to fulfil her dream. What she gets instead is a forlorn nunnery in wet and dreary Wiltshire…

… And no word from the beloved Eleanor who is off flooding the Plantagenet gene pool (and then regretting much of the outflow from the overcrowded space). Marie’s admiration for Eleanor is mysterious (it is more likely, historically, that she was focused on her half-brother Henry II). Eleanor has slept her way to the top of the social ladder, something Marie wouldn’t even consider given her preferences. Eleanor is apparently a looker; Marie is a butch two feet taller than her peers with a face like… well, a horse. Eleanor has learned how to take and maintain power in a world of men; men don’t exist in Marie’s world except as faceless, nameless ghosts who are best avoided. Eleanor is ‘establishment’ through and through; Marie gives up on that world entirely in order to create her own anti-establishment.

Nevertheless Marie uses what she has, her growing band of nuns, to make a name and a position of respect. And she thinks she has found what makes Eleanor so successful: “Women in this world are vulnerable; only reputation can keep them from being crushed.” So she develops an image of ruthless competence and dedicated persistence. And she is not above using the church itself to further her ambitions. As she has learned from her blind, dotty abbess, “Mystical acts create mystical beliefs.”

Marie creates a set of phoney accounts to mislead the local bishop about the convent’s growing wealth. And flirtatiously flatters her own female superiors into submission. Corruption is necessary after all to fight corruption, she muses. And for a woman of definite sexual tastes, the abbey provides the casual but close companionship she desires. And why not, since men aren’t involved, there’s no biblical prohibition against womanly mutual comfort. She is getting accustomed to this business of faith as well: “How strange, she thinks. Belief has grown upon her. Perhaps, she thinks, it is something like a mold.” And her principle belief is that men are the carriers if not the source of evil and will be banned entirely from the abbey’s estates.

Marie’s post-menopausal visions are the driving force of her middle age (Groff spends several pages on Marie’s hot flushes, suggesting she likes the image of women of a certain age as witches). They tell her to make the abbey an “island of women” entirely enclosed and fortified against the vagaries of the (male-inhabited) world. Over the objections of her senior nuns she builds a enormous labyrinthine maze around the abbey. All hands contribute, neglecting their religious rituals but designing and building new machines, roads, dams, and fortifications with military precision.

Marie’s project is noticed by both the nobility and the church authorities. And not favourably. But Marie has already started a massive international PR programme to quell criticism.:

“through the countryside, the women will tell stories, woman to woman, servant to servant and lady to lady, and the stories will spread north and south upon this island, and the stories will alchemize into legends, and the legends will serve as cautionary tales, and her nuns will be made doubly safe through story most powerful.”

Eleanor, freed finally from family and regnal strife, seems to approve Marie’s efforts. So Marie receives a new vision and a new project. Hoping to entice Eleanor to retire in the abbey, Marie starts the building of an enormous abbess house. For this skilled men are needed. Appropriate precautions are taken. Blindfolds are necessary for any member of the community who bring the men food, drink, and pay. The maze provides security. But there is a gap in defences, enough for some sperm to sneak over the wall, as it were, and one of the naughty novices gets pregnant, miscarries and dies. Marie works jointly with the Queen “against the old carrionbirds Gossip and Rumor.” to bury the scandal.

Marie has made her dream a reality through cunning and wit. She has power, power to maintain a “second Eden.” She is the new Eve. And as Eve was a precursor of the Virgin Mary so the Virgin is a precursor of Mother Abbess Marie. She is turning into an apocalyptic fanatic: “Marie sees evil settling on the world, an evil overcoming the goodness in the hearts of even the holy.” She essentially forms her own church, installing herself as high priestess: “I will take upon my own shoulders the abbey’s sacerdotal duties.” She says Mass, takes confessions, changes the Latin ritual to feminine endings, and performs the other roles canonically reserved for males.

It is in the confessional that Marie gets to understand the depth of suffering her flock has undergone at the hands of men: “she sorrows for her daughters in their lives before, the secret invisible weights they have dragged behind them into the abbey.” Rape, abuse, the guilt of fighting and not fighting off these men. Out of fear, love or loyalty no one snitches to the authorities. Marie, of course, knows everyone’s secrets at this point. Prudence prevails.

Cults produce other cults, Marie finds, as competition emerges in the abbey’s ranks. The first rule of power is to protect power. If two mystical prophets share the same time and space, one of them is false. Marie manoeuvres her potential rivals out. She expands her physical empire, even as Eleanor is dying and loosing hers. Marie feels elation rather than sorrow. “She feels royal. She feels papal.” She even encroaches on Crown land. Unfortunately protection of this dramatic enlargement of her ambition will require murder, and the death of her friend. With this last comes regret and a personal revelation:
“Marie’s arrogance brought this final illness upon Wulfhild. Her endless hunger ate up the daughter of her spirit. The need to enlarge this abbey she has thought of as an extension of her own body. Her actions always in reaction to the question of what she could have done in the world, if she had only been given her freedom.”

Yet she still refuses to recognise the papal interdict of England forbidding all religious rights - the ultimate arrogance. In Marie’s quiet island of women and work, ritual and observance go on as usual for years. Even in old age she can successfully resist men wielding power through deceit and misinformation more than equivalent to their own. She is unrepentant, missed by her sisters in death, and portrayed by Groff as a sort of light that failed.


I get it, I do. Tricking Da Massa is rewarding revenge and one has to admire Marie’s ingenuity (or rather Groff’s). Men are mostly shits; history demonstrates their danger to women. And Marie’s ability to still raise an orgasm or two well into her seventies is admirable indeed. But if that’s the sum of Marie’s life, it might have been wasted in better ways. The image of Eve (the first Matrix) and the Virgin Mary (the greatest Matrix) engaged in an eternal sensual kiss, both embraced by Abbess Marie (the last Matrix) isn’t really sufficient to maintain either a mystical cult or visionary momentum. Ultimately Marie couldn’t institutionalise herself and her vision. Both passed apparently into obscurity. Groff’s resurrection doesn’t add much of value to the legends.

I await the avalanche of Mariolatrus abuse.
Profile Image for Jen CAN.
505 reviews1,484 followers
November 3, 2021
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked this up. Ratings have been all over the place. But I adored Fates and Furies so I was drawn to this author.

It’s the 12 century. Seventeen year old Marie has been ousted out of the Queen’s court in France, and is sent to be the Prioress of a monastery. She’s not marriageable because of her height and looks. (!) Through determination and strong will, She manages to bring the Abbey out of its poverty and into a wealthy place. Building her own empire.

The fascinating matrix in the Abbey. Coinciding with that of the Queen. Powerful women. Visions. Lust. Traditional good vs evil. Loyalty.

Strong female character -reminded me of Brianna from game of Thrones. Kind of reminiscent of Pillars of the Earth timeline. Writing lush.

Amazing research and just another reminder that I wouldn’t have survived these times.
Profile Image for Henk.
875 reviews
December 15, 2021
Well written but the cycles of (i) curveball challenge to an prioress/abbess establishing oneself, (ii) solution, (iii) some lesbian sex and (iv) observation on monastic life really bored me after a while, even though this is not a sizeable book
For it is a deep and human truth that most souls upon the earth are not at ease unless they find themselves safe in the hands of a force far greater than themselves.

Matrix in a sense feels like an inverse to Wolf Hall, where we have a well known story but Hilary Mantel puts the reader at the edge of their seat. While here we have a for me unknown historical inspired story but Lauren Groff doesn't manage to engage me as a reader to be invested in the fate of the main character whose special destiny is very obvious from the onset: Of course Marie did have greatness in her, but greatness was not the same as goodness.

Even stranger maybe, but this book even made me think of Red Rising by Pierce Brown, where we also follow a main character who is basically good in everything. The way that Groff portrays the world of monastic isolation, with lots of sudden illnesses, destitution and death, is very well done, but Marie for me was rather hard to sympathise with. Is she just controlling of her fellow nuns, carving out a kingdom, or is she truly a believer of heavenly inspired visions? I am more inclined to the first explanation than the second, despite She is not built thrive without others being inserted in the text by the author.

Also her love life doesn't help, since there is a veritable plethora of women who Marie fancies during the book, so how special and deep is the cut from Eleanor of Aquitaine?
Finally the things limiting her are, as one observes sharply, in the end just instruments of her elevation, making the conflict never feel very deep: In fact, Cecily says, it was Marie’s unbeauty that was the making of her.

All in all I was just not emotionally engaged and I also found the plotting of the novel rather uneven, with sometimes years passing in a few pages, and still the novel felt long and plodding for me, something in a way indicated by the last sentence of the book as well: And the works and the hours go on.
Profile Image for Barbara**catching up!.
1,395 reviews804 followers
April 6, 2023
I am a longtime fan of author Lauren Groff, with my favorite being “Fates and Furies”. Her new novel, “Matrix”, is about a 12th century nun which I read with trepidation. I could not imagine a story in which I’d be interested, involving a French nun who is also known as a poet and a woman with “visions” from the Virgin Mary. Given my heretical opinion of those who indulged in holy visions, I always assume those visions occurred from severe mental illness or from a physical reason such as dehydration, toxins, illnesses. In other words, I am not a believer in the holiness of visons from deities. Hence, I doubt I’m going to enjoy this story.

Well, I did enjoy it. Groff took her nun, Marie, and made her into a feminist of the 12th century. Marie is a character who decided to fight back in her subjugation. Marie was an orphaned and rebellious teen, selfish and far from religious. Queen Eleanor banishes her from France to an English poverty-stricken nunnery where she ascends to roll of prioress. Through grit and determination, Marie turns her impoverished abbey into one of the richest lands in England.

Through Groff’s imagination, the reader enjoys Marie’s successes. Marie is pitted against the patriarchs of the church. She’s pitted against the land. Even some of her beloved postulants scheme against her. Through Marie’s anger with Eleanor, she decides to create an abbey like none other. She was ambitious in her relentless efforts to protect her “daughters” and her land. Groff made Marie into female power. That is not to say that Marie didn’t question her own morality, especially as she reflected upon what was “just”.

Marie is based on the medieval author Marie de France. Although not much information is available about Marie de France, Groff researched Queen Eleanor and created a very interesting story about a woman who through ambition and strategy, outwitted the patriarchy. Groff proves that feminism was relevant through the centuries.

Groff’s prose carries the story along with her imagination. Groff remains one of my favorite authors.
Profile Image for Blaine.
782 reviews657 followers
September 13, 2022
[S]he could hold her daughters aloof from the corrupting world. There would be no authority but Marie's authority in this place. And they could stay on this piece of earth where the place has always stood but her daughters would be removed, enclosed, safe. They would be self-sufficient, entire unto themselves. An island of women.
Historical fiction is not my usual jam, and I dare say books about a 12th century abbey are hardly anyone’s jam. But Lauren Groff is an extraordinary writer, and after Fates and Furies, I would read literally any book she writes.

Matrix tells one possible story of Marie de France, a real-life poet of note in late-12th century England. But there are only passing references to her work as a poet. Instead, the novel presumes that Marie de France was also, as some historians believe, Marie the Abbess of Shaftesbury, about whom almost nothing is known beyond a familial connection to then-King Henry II. Ms. Groff’s Marie is a giant, homely, yet brilliant woman—seemingly half Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones and half Alexander Hamilton. Deemed unmarriable by Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marie is sent out of the royal court to work as the Prioress in a failing English abbey. After getting over the sting of her exile, Marie decides to use her considerable skills to restore the abbey. The novel then rolls through the next fifty or so years as Marie rises to Abbess, accumulates more and more power and influence within England, and uses that power to attempt to better women’s lives.

Matrix has some plot points, and even a couple of action sequences, but this novel is one of character and ideas. Marie’s story is a story about the power of women and womanhood. The love they can have for and nurture in one another. It takes the position that freed from men, and societal expectations, women can flourish into their best selves. Marie has a series of religious visions that were (and still are) objectively heretical precisely because they expose the deep, irrational sexism still so pervasive in our world today. The emotional force of the story builds slowly until it reaches its heartbreaking conclusion, and a feeling of loss for what could or should have been. Matrix is an absorbing tale of feminism and perseverance, equality and achievement. 4.5 stars rounded up to 5. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Marchpane.
296 reviews2,166 followers
September 29, 2021
Longlisted for the National Book Awards 2021

‘For it is a deep and human truth that most souls upon the earth are not at ease unless they find themselves safe in the hands of a force far greater than themselves.’

My advanced reader copy of Matrix came with the all-caps tagline: MEET THE INDOMITABLE MARIE DE FRANCE. However, there is but a mere soupçon of Marie de France in this well-wrought tale, so to any stans out there: this might be a letdown.

Not much is known about Marie, other than she was 12th century French poetess who wrote a collection of lais (short narrative poems) about courtly romance, with a fairytale bent. Which is why it’s strange that Groff disposes of these scant biographical details early on in this novel. Groff’s Marie dashes off the lais as an angsty teenager, her fledgling artistic tendencies are squashed, she moves on to nunnier pastures.

There is a theory (not proven) that the poetess Marie de France and another historical personage, the English abbess Mary of Shaftesbury were in fact one and the same. Even less is known about Mary, the half-sister of Henry II, but in any case, Groff was clearly more jazzed by writing about a boss-woman of a huge abbey so here we are. Less de France, more Shaftesbury.

‘Fine then, she thinks with bitterness. She will stay in this wretched place and make the best of the life given her. She will do all that she can do to exalt herself on this worldly plane. She will make those who cast her out sorry for what they’ve done. One day they will see the majesty she holds within herself and feel awe.’

Matrix is a big-budget, prestige-TV Gwendoline Christie vehicle in novel form. It is a fantasy version of history, in which Marie’s inexorable, inevitable rise to power is parcelled out in sumptuous, bingeable segments, each one presenting a new set of challenges and ending with Marie triomphante. As enjoyable and lushly written as Matrix is, Groff has, in Marie, written a heroine so superior, so literally INDOMITABLE, that the novel is shorn of its emotional potency. You expect her to win. She does. She’s also a total chick-magnet.

Subversive enough to include a scene where novices take turns ‘playing Judith’ with a severed head, Matrix is nonetheless fun, feminist, blessedly escapist historical fiction. 4 stars.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,049 reviews48.7k followers
September 13, 2021
If “Matrix” were written by anyone else, it would be a hard sell. But Lauren Groff is one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed fiction writers in the country. And now that we’ve endured almost two years of quarantine and social distancing, her new novel about a 12th-century nunnery feels downright timely.

Still, a medieval abbess is a challenging heroine — living, as she does, a millennium away from us, suspended in that dim historical period long after the Romans but centuries before Shakespeare. We need a trusted guide, someone who can dramatize this remote period while making it somehow relevant to our own lives.

Groff is that guide largely because she knows what to leave out. Indeed, it’s breathtaking how little ink she spills on filling in historical context. Details about the court of King Henry II are omitted as though the Angevin Empire were as familiar to contemporary Americans as Westeros. What you might already know about Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Second Crusade — probably little — will not be much increased by reading “Matrix.” And though it covers more than 50 tumultuous years, this entire novel wraps up in the space it would take Ken Follett to warm a cauldron of gruel. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Jessica Wiggins.
125 reviews
September 19, 2021
I'm not so sure what Groff was trying to accomplish here. I'm pretty sure I was the very first person to get this much-anticipated new release at my library; I had requested it long ago when I read the blurb and said to myself, woo buddy, this one's for me. It's a fictionalized account of Marie de France, the 12th century poet and writer and possible nun (scholars aren't so sure, might've been another Marie), and her life and work as the abbess of an English convent.

Both the writing and the storytelling fell flat. Groff barely writes a line of direct dialogue in the entire book, and it's written in third person in a tone that seems almost intentionally designed to hold the the reader at arm's length from Marie. It skims over the surface of 50+ years of Marie's life, telling little anecdotes that seem promising and then abruptly and decisively resolving them, introducing characters that seem intriguing and then killing them off a few pages later. This did not seem like a statement on the transitory nature of earthly life as much as plain bad writing.

Honestly, I'm also angry at Groff's decision to jettison the one thing we truly know about Marie de France: she was a writer of beautiful French ballads, based on fascinating myths and lore! But the book gives all of a paragraph to Marie's book of lais, which are still read and studied today, and annoyance of annoyances, envisions it as this Mary Shelley-esque "it came to me in a dream fully formed, et voila!" bullshittery. Why are we still talking about writing like it springs from Zeus' head? I suppose I was hoping to read a different kind of historical book, but it all felt like a huge creative opportunity thrown out in favor of... many pages of Marie making her convent prosperous. It is a straightforward trajectory of fairly uncomplicated progress, with bonus medieval same-sex desire. Some might call it subtle; I call it dim and spiritless.
Profile Image for Tammy.
523 reviews438 followers
April 14, 2021
In her inimitable style Groff tells of the life of Marie of France or Mary of Shaftesbury (depending on the resource consulted) about whom little is known. A bastard of royal blood, Marie was booted from royal court and sent to live out her days first as a prioress and then as an abbess at a starving, poverty stricken, disease-ridden abbey of no regard. Her days revolve around temperamental and unpredictable nuns, very hard and painstaking work, and many hours of prayer and meditation. And, this matrix of monastic life is able to transform the abbey from one thing into another. A woman of passion, vision, self-assurance, and bravery, Marie is a force to be reckoned with. Who knew that reading a fictional account of a prioress/abbess of a High Middle Ages abbey would be so captivating?
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
965 reviews6,830 followers
April 30, 2023
The spicy nun novel we deserve, this is a fun and imaginative take on history through a fantastical and feminist story of mystical visions, poetry and power struggles. A real treat.
Profile Image for David.
296 reviews754 followers
December 29, 2021
Eleanor of Aquitaine was a force of nature, dominating her era through personality and political machinations, leading revolts even against her husband and children. Told from the perspective of Marie de France, who is in love with Eleanor, Matrix is set in a 12th century abbey peopled with nuns with a 21st century sensibility. Fixating on the anachronisms is beside the point because this is more fan fiction than historical novel. Adjoa Andoh, who read the audio book, highlights the fanfic nature of Matrix by channeling Katharine Hepburn’s brilliant portrayal of Eleanor in Lion in Winter, Mid-Atlantic accent and all. The book wavered a bit with Marie’s visions, as the mysticism was less convincing than other anachronisms. This is a cleverly executed pro-feminist novel but Julian of Norwich it is not.
Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,639 reviews2,154 followers
July 13, 2021
There are several definitions of "matrix," but the one central to this novel is an old one, meaning a kind of mother, from matr- and -trix, and once I figured that out I stopped asking the question I'd had since I first heard that it was a book about 12th century nuns where I could not for the life of me figure out what a mathematical word like this had to do in the title. Anyway, if you are a weirdo like me, I have solved your problem.

This is a novel about 12th century nuns, the prose holds our characters at quite a distance, and it takes place over several decades without one overarching plot line. All of these things are reasons I should not like this novel, they are not my particular cup of tea, and yet I still liked this quite a lot. Our protagonist, Marie, wins you over early on and you get to have the complicated relationship with her you get in very good novels. Marie is stubborn, proud, and smart. She is a woman in a society where there is no place for smart women, and she is too young to recognize how very lucky she is to be shipped off to be prioress of an abbey, where she will have some stability and a little power.

Eventually Marie comes to understand just how much she can accomplish because she is in a place entirely cut off from most of society, a place where the rules of men do not really apply. In that sense this book is a little bit of a feminist utopia. Not only does Marie find ways to turn the struggling abbey into a stable one, but over time she understands that she is able to make it something unique. She has several visions that assist her in this task, and I suspect some readers will be frustrated by them as a device, but I liked them quite a lot. It doesn't matter to me if they are real religious experiences or dreams based on her own desires, given how deeply the abbey becomes a part of her life it is the same either way.

There is also, unsurprisingly, a lot of queerness in this novel. Happily Groff does not leave it as subtext but makes it actual text on a regular basis. I do not miss the days when all queerness was subtext, y'all.

This is pretty ambitious, even for Groff who is often ambitious, and I was surprised by how much it won me over. I did use my kindle's definition/wikipedia function often as I was unfamiliar with some of the specific terms used in an abbey or used at the time (glad there are archaic definitions listed because they were generally the right ones!) but you will be fine even without them, the book eases you in and context is usually quite clear. It's based on real people and it certainly feels like you get a glimpse into a time that is rarely depicted so clearly in fiction.
Profile Image for Lorna.
719 reviews418 followers
October 29, 2022
Matrix is the latest novel by Lauren Groff, this historical fiction saga begins with seventeen-year old Marie de France being cast out of the Royal Court by Eleanor of Aquitane partially because of her illegitimate birth status as well as being thought too coarse, too homely, too tall to be suitable for marriage. Marie de France was subsequently banished by the queen to an impoverished damp and glum Benedictine abbey in the English countryside as prioress.

"She is tall, a giantess of a maiden, and her elbows and knees stick out, ungainly; the fine rain gathers until it runs rivulets down her sealskin cloak and darkens her green headcloths to black. Her stark Angevin face holds no beauty, only canniness and passion yet unchecked. It is wet with rain, not tears. She has yet to cry for having been thrown to the dogs.

Marie will remember these days after arriving at the abbey as thick and black, but in this dismal darkness she realizes what she must do to win Eleanor over as she is fond of stories, love that is given and received through song. She will compose these lais written on beautiful parchment paper.

"What has come to Marie is a Breton lai in rhyming lines, sudden and beautiful, in its entirety. Her hands begin to shake in her lap. She will write a collection of lais, translated to the fine musical French of the court. She will send her manuscript as a blazing arrow toward her love, and when it strikes, it will set that cruel heart afire. Eleanor will relent Marie will be allowed back to the court, to the place where none starve, and there is always music and dogs and birds and life, where at dusk the gardens are full of lovers and flowers and intrigue, where Marie can practice her languages and hear in the halls the fiery tails of new ideas shooting through conversations."

After a while, Marie sadly realizes that she is not going to hear from the queen. Since she ran her mother's estate very capably for two years after her death she decides to invest her talents and organizational skills in improving the lot of the nuns at the abbey. When she arrived she saw the graves of fourteen sisters that had recently died due to the plague and all of the nuns were starving as there was no food. After all, Marie de France came from a long line of crusaders. She had taken up the cross as a child crusader but had to come home without seeing Jerusalem. She begins to spend time reviewing the account books determining how to recover the lands that had been defaulted on and acts on those renters in default.

"And so she rises and her army of nuns follows her, for by now they have all heard that she is a crusader who knows the holy righteousness of the sword."

"This first spring that she has come to the abbey, Marie plants the apricot pits she had stolen from the queen's garden, to get them away from herself, for they are a souvenir of all she has lost. They will struggle to grow, sprouting weak thin leaves. She will feel as her own life is bound up in the trees. She doesn't yet know if she wants them to shrivel or thrive."

"She has passed from the temporal to the everlasting; she has committed herself to this scraggly awful place, to these women she hardly knows. There is in fact a change in her, something subtle, but every time she tries to touch it, to turn it around, to consider it, she is left holding nothing."

As the decades pass, Marie de France thrives as the prioress of the abbey as do her sisters. At the heart of this book is the power of women in a corrupted world as Marie de France embraces her sisters that she sometimes refers to as her beauties as they fight valiantly accompanying her on a crusade. This is a tale of women seizing power and determining their own destiny in this early medieval period. I could go on but I will just say that this was an exciting and lovely book by one of my favorite contemporary writers. Lauren Groff's words in her Acknowledgements says it all:

"Thank you to my readers.
This book is for my sisters, those of the flesh, and those of the spirit."
Profile Image for Adam Dalva.
Author 8 books1,642 followers
January 13, 2022
Wonderfully written and researched story of an ambitious accidental nun consolidating power in the 12th century. The book thrums with visions and Groff's excellent writing, and I flew through it. I occasionally (this isn't a critique, exactly, just an observation) found that the book was winking a bit too much at the contemporary reader, in its imaginings of the future and usage of contemporary political conversation. The easy comparison is perhaps Wolf Hall, which drew me in more, but there's an ambition here that's remarkable.

The absence of male characters is notable, and very well done.
Profile Image for karen.
3,988 reviews170k followers
September 7, 2021
i put off reviewing this too long, because the book is so much better than my reviewing abilities, and now it's pub day and i'm the worst. the book's still great, though, and it's out today. go get it.
Profile Image for Eric Anderson.
686 reviews3,396 followers
October 12, 2021
I was in the middle of reading a much-acclaimed new novel recently and the experience was dragging because I wasn't gripped by it so I decided to put it aside and pick up Lauren Groff's new novel “Matrix” instead. French lesbian nuns in the 12th century! This is what I need! That's not to say that it's appealing just for the subject matter. The story delves into the mind and heart of its heroine Marie de France in such a compelling and complex way that I'm still pondering the larger meaning of this tale. On the surface it's very different from “Fates and Furies” which is the only other novel I've read by Groff. Yet, it's a continuation in the way this author so cleverly and sympathetically elevates the stories of women who mostly appear in the margins of storytelling.

The novel begins with Marie, an illegitimate child of the royal court being written out of history as she's sent to permanently live and work as a prioress in a dilapidated and impoverished abbey in Angleterre. In this foreign land and in circumstances much more humble than the life she lived before she's meant to quietly reside out of sight from larger society. But Marie is a large woman - both in body and spirit and she's going to make her presence known. As we follow the story of her long life we see how she not only reinvigorates this rundown countryside abbey but establishes a sisterhood among the nuns who live there. It's a vividly told and dramatic tale which takes the richness of its protagonist's inner life as a given because she has so much more to offer than the opportunities she's given. Yet, the novel also really excels in how it interrogates the way Marie might unknowingly contribute society's rocky evolution.

Read my full review of Matrix by Lauren Groff on LonesomeReader
Profile Image for Rachel.
550 reviews926 followers
January 15, 2022
I wanted more than anything to have a strong reaction to this book. If I hated it, it would have validated how strongly I disliked Fates and Furies and how staunchly I have been avoiding Groff’s books ever since then; if I loved it, it would have been amusing for that same reason. Regrettably I thought it was just fine.

Matrix is an interesting project. Groff fictionalizes the life of Marie de France, a figure we know very little about, and discards the details we do know in favor of creating her own version of history. Matrix is more of a feminist fantasy of medieval life than it is an effort to accurately recreate historical detail. Groff isn't interested in humanizing Marie as much as girlbossifying her, assigning conflicts to the narrative only as minor hurdles for Marie to overcome. 

I thought this book’s main strength was in its depiction of the abbey as an institution; underscoring that institutions are run by people and not by divine intervention. The tension between Marie's relative faithlessness and her competence at leading the abbey from poverty to prosperity is where this relatively meandering novel feels the most focused. 

What this did affirm for me is that I just don't get on with Groff's writing on a sentence-by-sentence level; I find her prose very labored and there's just no momentum for me. This was a bit of a chore to get through, honestly, which is odd to say as it's such a slim tome. I largely admired what Groff was trying to do with this book, but found the execution lacking more often than not.
Profile Image for Peter.
503 reviews608 followers
November 7, 2021
This story begins in 1158, in the royal court of Eleanor of Aquitaine. And 17-year-old Marie doesn't fit in - her unusual height, plain looks and rural French accent setting her apart from more sophisticated contemporaries. Eleanor sends her away to live in a rundown abbey, much to Marie's heartbreak, as she has always held a deep admiration for her Queen. The abbey is in a sorry state, its twenty nuns starving and rudderless under the charge of a blind, scattered abbess. Marie takes over as prioress and transforms the institution, bringing in new rents, setting up a scriptorium and putting the nuns to work more suiting their abilities. She also begins to receive visions of the Virgin Mary, and these apparitions guide her ambitions for the abbey.

I'm afraid I didn't get on very well with this one. The setup is intriguing, and I rooted for our hero, hoping that she would show Eleanor the error of her decision and prove her wrong. However, it becomes apparent that the Queen has no interest in poor Marie, and unfortunately that subplot never caught fire. I thought that I would find life in a medieval abbey more interesting, but it all seemed to come a bit too easy to Marie - as other reviewers have noted, it felt like she overcame every obstacle without breaking a sweat. And I soon found the visions tiresome and repetitive. I have enjoyed the work of Lauren Groff in the past: Fates and Furies was a particular highlight. But Matrix never grabbed me, and I struggled to understand the point that it was trying to make.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,855 followers
December 27, 2021
Ungainly and gigantic, medieval Marie de France is exiled as a 17-year-old orphan from the court of Eleanor d'Aquitaine and sent to live in an English abbey falling to ruin. The sisters are starving, their ranks recently decimated by a round of the Plague. Their abbess is a blind, good-hearted but dim soul who lacks the fortitude to lead her nuns out of squalor. After a period of shock and depression, and even as her heart breaks at being abandoned by her beloved Eleanor, Marie rouses herself and gets to work. She is literate and numerate — a rarity in the twelfth century; these skills combined with her size and her sharp wit make Marie a lioness not just among the sisters and novices she leads, but among the men who would invade the sanctity of this women's space.

When the abbess dies, power naturally falls to Marie and in time she transforms an impoverished abbey into a center of religious and economic power. Guided by a series of divine visions, Marie allows herself an ambition nearly unthinkable for women. But she does have a few notable role models. As a child, she accompanied her mother and aunts on a Crusade to the Holy Lands, learning that women can be as fierce of warriors as men. And it is there she sees for the first the woman she will come to adore, admire and ache for over long decades of hardship and deprivation: the sumptuous and strategic Eleanor Plantagenet.

This is a stunning and vibrant novel, rich with specificity, pleasure and imagination. Lauren Groff masterfully avoids an anachronistic feminism by showing how Marie encircled this abbey with her great will and intelligence, and then widened that circle over the course of decades of toil and determination. Marie of Matrix is inspired by the historical figure Marie de France, a medieval poet about whom little is known. Groff creates a character who is so full of life, you ache to have known her. Marie is vulnerable, passionate, arrogant and heretical. The world she lives in is grueling and yet somehow so alluring, demanding concert with the nature (and yet, Groff shows the heartbreaking devastation of an ancient forest to fulfill a divinely-inspired ambition, the building of a labyrinth to protect the nunnery). All of this is accomplished without the usual embellishments and melodrama typical of historical fiction. Groff's style, even the ripest of details of lust, disease, violence and death, is poetic but subtle, eschewing traditional dialogue for a richer inner conversation.

Lauren Groff shows us once again what a preternaturally gifted writer and storyteller she is. I am awed by her graceful, powerful writing and her ability to envelope the reader wholly in the astonishing world of her creation. One of the year's best for this reader. Brava!
Profile Image for Olive Fellows (abookolive).
613 reviews4,999 followers
July 9, 2022
Click here to hear my thoughts on this book over on my Booktube channel, abookolive.

Lauren Groff's latest is loosely inspired by late 12th century poet Marie de France, but Matrix is much more a study of female ambition than it is an examination of female creativity (as the publisher's synopsis suggests). The book is full of all the same fantastic writing found in Fates and Furies and it proves to be completely absorbing despite its slow pace.
Profile Image for Chris.
Author 38 books11.4k followers
February 1, 2022
Again, late with my review. So sorry. But, yes, I loved every element of this novel. I'm an enormous fan of Lauren Groff, and savored my time with her characters in a medieval convent. And who would have thought that a life devoted to daily prayer and (yes) habit, could become such a remarkable page turner? Marie is a force of nature: a woman who never expected to be a nun, much less run (and then transform) a nunnery. MATRIX is a marvel: wise and beautiful and surprising.
Profile Image for Chris.
154 reviews17 followers
July 13, 2021
This never quite opened up for me… It’s a medieval girlboss fantasia set almost entirely in an abbey, loosely based on the little that’s known about Marie de France. This Marie is kicked out of the French royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine and sent to run the abbey at age seventeen. That’s about where the real hardships for Marie end. The abbey is poor when she gets there, and over the course of the book we see her turn it into a rich and profitable abbey. Mild threats from the Queen to tax them higher are somehow easily evaded. Conflict comes and goes like that, showing up in little bursts and soon being overcome by Marie’s tall-tale-like ingenuity and power. The story is told at a distance, spanning the whole lifetime of Marie, so I understand from an efficiency perspective not wanting to get into any one challenge she faced. But, for me, a boredom set in halfway through that didn’t ever leave. It’s hard to be engaged if you know that any trouble that comes her way will quickly and often unbelievably be tossed off with ease. Towers go up despite protests, attackers are defeated with hardly any loss or pain to the nuns, sexism is seemingly done away with when the townspeople and the church leaders and everyone else behold the power of Marie. It makes the novel feel cartoonish, like a superhero story without a compelling villain. A reader is supposed to have the same awe that the fellow nuns do, but it’s one thing to be told you should feel awe and another thing to feel it. I think it’s a great project to tell a story about medieval women without the usual doom and gloom, but it does a disservice to focus so much on the magical exceptionality of Marie. Like any story about exceptions overcoming the oppression of their groups, there’s a risk of making it seem like—well, if this one person can do all that, then isn’t every other person’s oppression kind of a fault of their shortcomings? I.e. while trying to do a feminist reclamation, it has whiffs of a conservative bootstrap tale. Without realistic, believable, grounded conflict, it’s hard to put the awe you're supposed to have for Marie in perspective.
Profile Image for Barbara K..
429 reviews85 followers
August 14, 2022
This book demands a great deal from the reader. It's historical fiction set in the late 12th/early 13th century; the protagonist is based very loosely on a woman named Marie de France. That Marie was an author, known primarily for her "lais", lengthy poems much favored at the royal courts. She may or may not have been a half sister of Henry II, and she may or may not have been the Abbess of Shaftesbury.

Groff takes the liberty of inventing a version of Marie from these bare bones, and what a creation she is. Born into a family of tall, powerful, educated women, she is the product of the rape of her mother by Henry's father when he passed through their village on a Crusade. She grows up to possess none of the graces that would make her successful at court, and at age 17 is sent by Henry's wife, the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquataine, to take responsibility for an abbey that is quite literally dying.

So before Marie's life as abbess, the core of the story, even begins, the reader benefits from knowing something of the Crusades, of the history of France and "Angleterre", of the women who took center stage in the events of the time, particularly Eleanor and Matilda (the men are only sketched in), and the operations of an abbey. A quick dive into Wikipedia will fill in the gaps for those who would like a deeper understanding of the history; those who are incurious about the details can still appreciate the tales of these forceful personalities, Marie chief among them.

The next demand on the reader is to accept Marie, who she becomes and what she accomplishes at the abbey. She is both of her time, and above and beyond her time. Physically intimidating, intellectually on a par with the royals and ecclesiastics she must deal with, ambitious, religious, and yet carnal. Having saved the abbey from ruin, she develops a vocation to make it into a thriving enclave where the sisters are safe from the ravages of the external world. She taps into their talents to create illuminated manuscripts, reclaim lands and monies from the neighboring gentry, and achieve engineering feats. Marie is driven by visions in which the Virgin Mary guides her - or are these Marie's own desires transformed into visions?

The final demand is to find your own terms on which to accept the book. Will you consider it a lushly written, dynamic fantasy of a person and place that could have existed in the real world? Or will you approach it from the theological perspective and become enmeshed in whether Marie dangerously oversteps the bounds of the Church in pursuit of her own ambitions? Do you chose to take it as a feminist creed, a statement of the potential power of women to sustain themselves in a world without men?

In the end, it is not an easy book, but one that was, for me, rewarding.

p.s. I listened to the audiobook and the narration was superb.
Profile Image for Stephanie Courtney.
111 reviews5 followers
September 21, 2021
Maybe in another life I’ll give Matrix a second try but I doubt it’ll happen again in this life…
I saw several glowing reviews and I’m just not sure I was reading the same book. I didn’t find it beautifully and wonderfully written, I found it dull and tedious. At one point I stopped and went back to count just how long a particularly long-seeming run-on sentence was and could only shake my head when I confirmed that it spanned fourteen lines.
After forcing my way through the first few dozen pages I skipped ahead to see if anything in future chapters jumped out at me or made me really feel like I had to push through to get to something better and sadly, I didn’t find that to be the case.
Also, the use of indirect dialogue rarely works for me as I find it can cause a real disconnect between the reader and the characters, and sadly this style was employed here.
Plenty of people seem to love this book but for me it just isn’t working and instead of forcing myself through it, it’s on to something else!
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books817 followers
September 27, 2021

When I heard Groff had a new work out, I immediately requested it from the library. I was first in line for the e-copy and started it not knowing one thing about its contents. (I’d even thought there was a “The” in the title before I saw the physical cover.) Imagine my surprise when I read the beginning of an unexpected third sentence: “It is 1158…” Ah, historical fiction, I thought. Yet, as I read on, my brain created a different label.

Groff had few facts to work with when it came to her main character, Marie de France, and I bet she found that more freeing than Hilary Mantel likely did with her Cromwell. (I fleetingly saw a quote contrasting the two and can’t claim the original comparison.) It’s a fact that Marie was a poet, renowned for her lais (short rhymed tales of love and chivalry), and that’s about it. She might have been the Abbess of Shaftesbury, who might’ve been the illegitimate half-sister of the husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I phrase the royal relationship that way because Groff never names the man, though he’s the king. Eleanor is pivotal in Groff’s account of Marie’s life. No man is. The whole book is a women-only space: That’s its point.

So, as I continued reading, the phrase “historical fantasy” popped in my head, though I don’t mean that second word in a magical way at all. I suppose the term I should use is speculative fiction, as Groff’s story doesn’t exist in recorded history. None of the labels satisfy me, as I picture the author gleefully filling in all the unknowns with an even more creative imagining than a historical-fiction writer usually gets to employ.

Marie’s actions to protect her domain (as I write this, I’m reminded that Groff’s Arcadia dealt with a commune) and Marie’s transcriptions of her visions lead to ultimate questions of who is the Creator, what is Creation, and who might be responsible for the start of its Undoing.
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