Let me start this review with a warning: apparently I’m particularly long-winded when I’m writing a grumpy review because I feel a great need to explain myself, and I was very grumpy when I finished this book. To me, it exemplifies the type of literary book that I abhor: the novel with a pretense to depth but that, under the crafty writing, lacks substance. Probably, because I’m using this book as an example, some of my grumpiness is better directed elsewhere.
Hannah Pittard’s debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way (2011) filled me with misgivings when I picked it up, but my curiosity prevailed. The blurb reads as if the book were a variation on The Virgin Suicides (which I reviewed here). The narrator — in first-person plural perspective “we” — is the collective consciousness of a group of middle-aged men (or just over middle-aged men) looking back to their adolescent, foolish selves. Their youth and the intervening years have been marked by their continuing obsession with the possible whereabouts of one of the girls they knew, Nora Lindell, who, still young and full of possibilities, disappeared from their lives one Halloween night.
The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel, is a favorite. How could I not want to enter into a world the reminded me of it, despite misgivings? After all, Eugenides does not own the first-person plural point of view (though I was nervous that perhaps the unique technique’s raison d’être, and thus the thematic reverberations, would be the same; plus, Eugenides did it so well); also, Eugenides should not be the only one to deal with how lost girls affect the boys as they grow into men (but, again, Eugenides did it so well, and it’s not exactly a unique idea anyway).
I was happy,then, to discover that The Fates Will Find Their Way is not that similar to The Virgin Suicides except in those superficial ways. First, in The Virgin Suicides the boys know what happened to the girls — we all do (it’s in the title); but, here, Nora Lindell, the object of obsession, disappears. She may have died, but perhaps not — who knows? In the narrator’s minds she can die or go on to live and fulfill a multitude of potentialities. And they do this to the point of obsession for over thirty years. It is an interesting concept. They are mystified by this girl not because of who she was but because of who she could be. The book is also not like Eugenides’ because it never succeeds in exploring the live-long obsessions. To me, this book suffers from the fallacy that by merely alluding to profundity a deeper meaning is called into existence. No, this is not a retelling of The Virgin Suicides. And, no, this is not your typical disappearing girl act. But that doesn’t make it a good book.
The book begins with an echo of the first few lines of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, of all things. Pittard sets up the foundation of certainty, a distinct point of departure, Nora’s egress from the real to the limitless, mysterious, imagined:
Some things were certain; they were undeniable, inarguable. Nora Lindell was gone, for one thing. There was no doubt about that. For another, it was Halloween when she went missing, which only served to compound the eeriness, the mysteriousness of her disappearance.
The next day, when the disappearance is discovered, the narrator’s mothers spread the news on their phone tree. That night, the teenage boys gather to share any bits of knowledge they have about Nora’s disappearance. One swears he saw her at the train station, so she must have jumped on a train heading whoknowswhere. Another says he must have seen her even later when, at the train station, she got into a Catalina with a stranger. But really, they are certain about only one thing:
One day here, the next day gone. All that’s left: innuendos and guesses, half-true stories and gossip about what might have been.
“What might have been” is the book’s central theme. The boys are very good at imagining what happened to Nora, beginning from the day they heard about Nora’s disappearance: “As our curfew drew nearer, the stories became more lurid, more adult, more sinister, and somehow more believable.” In that first chapter we learn that their collective fabrication of Nora’s fate didn’t stop then; the narrator — the “we” — tells us that they grew older, moved away, and we know they have gone on to fairly conventional lives. Through it all, they’ve never stopped wondering what happened to Nora.
But it would be a lie to pretend that every one of us — alone finally, that last night of childhood, that last night before leaving for college — didn’t close our eyes, perhaps in unison even, and imagine Nora Lindell.
The second chapter begins with a promising concept. The narration stops following the boys’ actions and moves into their imaginations:
But what if Drew Price and Winston Rutherford weren’t lying? What if there really was a Catalina, and what if she really did get in? What if she didn’t know the man but she’d seen him before, and when he leaned across and opened the passenger-side door, she got in? What if it was that simple?
Facts and certainty aside, we venture with the narrator into the hypothetical. If she did get into that Catalina, where did she go? Was it sinister? Is she dead just a few counties over, as the first extended ellaboration tells us? Or was the driver just doing her a favor, just taking her to the airport? The chapter posits, in striking detail, potential trajectories from that Halloween. It is possible, for example, that Nora ended up in Arizona — after all, one of the boys spoke to her at the Houston airport and she said that’s where she was going — and from there the boys fill in the details:
It’s possible that, in Arizona, Nora Lindell’s hair turned a burnt yellow. Her skin became a caramel color she’d never seen before. She aged quickly. She waited tables. She worked hard. She rented a trailer.
Throughout the book, we see that all of the possibilities (her ending up dead a couple of counties over, her ending up in Arizona, later India) are partially substantiated by minor clues the boys (now men) pick up through the years: a sighting in another airport (and she has children!), a news report that just might show her in the background at the Mumbai bombings, mysterious people showing up with her family. The book settles into a reliable structure: in one chapter we are introduced to a possible existence for Nora; in the next we learn what grain of rumor the men heard that led them to imagine that particular potentiality. In those chapters the narrator also describes how the boys’ lives progress. Or don’t progress, but rather move from stage to stage.
There’s a quaint moral that raises its head: what might have happened to Nora becomes what might have happened to these men had they been paying as much attention to their own lives as they were to the imagined lives of this girl. It’s a familiar variation on the argument against philosophy that the Thracian maidservant uses against Thales in Plato’s Theaetetus when Thales gazes at the stars so long that he tumbles down a well: “She scoffed at him for being so eager to know what was happening in the sky that he could not see what lay at his feet.”
On a technical level — sentence by sentence, episode by episode — Pittard is a good writer. It is obvious that she has put a lot of time into honing her craft because her sentences read clearly and, through her fluency, she maintains a steady pace as the episode progresses. Despite the fundamental lack of development I described above, there is mystery and intrigue that keeps the reader moving forward. But it didn’t work on the larger scale. Eventually, the alternating chapters began to feel episodic, which sometimes is just right, but not here. Pittard has received attention for her short stories, and in the end — when it is clear the book will not fulfill its promise — the book reads like it was a bunch of severely underdeveloped short stories, any one of which (due to the lack of that developmental thread) could be discarded without diminishing the whole. Simple algebra tells us that their addition, then, also adds nothing.
Part of what’s left out is the whole reason the boys are obsessed with Nora in the first place? It isn’t enough that she disappeared, and I’m afraid I can’t just accept that they are because they are. I know such events linger, but for the boys to be so intrigued that they speak of her each time they get together for the next thirty years, including a collective thought the night before graduation, that link must be established. They were friendly with her before she disappeared, but nothing gives the sense that they were particularly close. One claims to have had sex with her, but he’s never really aligned with the narrators and, by the end, is in prison, effectively ousted from the third-person plural narrator.
It seems that the reason they are obsessed with Nora is because of her limitless potential when viewed in relation to their own conventional lives. And thus my central problem with the novel: I could never make the mental leap (and I believe a substantial leap is required) that these shallow men ever viewed her potentiality or their obsession with her potentiality in relation to their own lives. The book lacks the foundation and development that would support this interesting insight. The boys, on some level, realize they should have been looking at their own lives. But why should the reader accept this? There is no indication that their lives could have been better, because we get only snippets from their lives, they do stupid things, but these also read just like gossip.
Let me explain why I think the book’s development fails to substantiate its themes. For one thing, despite the considerable chapters about the boys’ lives and about Nora’s potential lives, many of the characters remain shallow and stereotypical. I was annoyed throughout, for example, that the boys’ mothers were primarily used as the embodiment of gossip. The phone tree never dies, and for a book about growing old and “what might have been,” these parental figures could have been more important. Then again, as the boys grow up, none of their family relationships are well developed:
We owned homes, had wives. Some of us had more than one child by then. In many ways, we were kings. Everything was ahead of us.
Their wives are nags who always complain that their husbands don’t comprehend. The only wife who becomes more is the mother of a thirteen-year-old girl who has sex with a forty-year-old man — in fact, the friend who says he had sex with Nora before she disappeared.
Not only are the mothers, the wives, and the children underdeveloped, but the boys themselves are stereotypically shallow. As they grow up, a few of them escape from the collective “we” and become individuals (by, for example, having sex with a thirteen year old and going to prison). Nevertheless, the remaining men grow into a stereotypical, unsatisfied man who has lived a stereotypical life. Because of that failure to develop them, they never seem like men who have lived. I don’t mean that in a “they never seized the moment” way; I mean, these men, despite the fact that we’re told they have wives and children, don’t speak like men who have any life experience. The portrayal of their relationships with their wives is rote, shallow, and annoying. Their children, to them, are merely reflections of their own adolescent potential and stupidity. While it is true that Pittard wants their lives to appear conventional and unfulfilled, certainly such features don’t have to be developed by resorting to stereotypes. But this development begins even when they are adolescents just beginning their obsession with Nora.
Pittard primarily uses sexual urges to show the boys’ fascinations, but, as is shown in The Virgin Suicides, obsession is fueled by much more. While they’d probably have liked to have had sex with Nora — and they’re jealous of the one among them who claims the honor — this doesn’t substantiate a life-long collective obsession. If the boys are as stereotypically shallow as they seem, I just don’t believe they would possess the acuity or the gravity required to consider Nora’s fate for long. Furthermore, as we watch these boys grow into men, a lot happens to them — pedophilia, rape, prison, death — and I’m not certain why, after all of that, Nora remains relevant to them at all. It would have worked better had we seen how Nora Lindell was more than just a disappearing girl who became a symbol. So, in the end, those who have relationships with the narrators are shallow, the narrators themselves are shallow, and Nora herself, despite the chapters that develop her post-disappearance life, is relegated a symbol — shallow.
Pittard would have us believe that Nora Lindell represents the unlimited to the boys. Their lives have settled down around them, but Nora holds a fixed point of departure from their lives, which could lead to anywhere.
Certain outcomes are unavoidable, invariable, absolutely unaffectable, and yet completely unpredictable. Certain outcomes are that way. But maybe not Nora’s. Maybe she was the only one who escaped; who had the chance to become something not completely inevitable.
So this missing girl is a symbol for other potentialities. She never feels like a real missing girl. She remains relevant to the boys only because of her symbolism (which, as I said, I just can’t believe they could consider). Sadly, her symbolism is also the reason she remains relevant to the book. By making her a symbol and not a reality, the book’s concept strangles the book’s mystery. Without the mystery, some tug from before the point of departure, the obsession doesn’t make sense. Consequently, the book takes on a constructed feel: the intrigue is stated (though not established) to facilitate the hypothetical future. But the book could have accomplished this and much more.
There would have been possibilities. Perhaps.