John’s recommendation for me this year was a debut novel from American author Hannah Pittard, The Fates Will Find Their Way, a book that proved to be an enjoyable, quick read — not the greatest book that I have read this year, but one that has much to recommend it.
The central event of the novel is the disappearance of 16-year-old Nora Lindell on Halloween night, an event that will have a major impact on all those around her, both then and in the years to come:
Of course, it wasn’t until the first day of November that most of us found out she was gone, because it wasn’t until the day after Halloween that her father realized she hadn’t come home the night before and so started calling our parents.
From what we could tell, and from how the phone tree was ordered that year, Jack Boyd’s parents got the first phone call. Mrs. Boyd, as presribed by the tree, called Mrs. Epstein, who called Mrs. Zblowski, who called Mrs. Jeffreys. By the time the tree had been completed, many mothers had already gotten word of Nora’s disappearance either from us — running from house to house — or from Mr. Lindell himself, who’d broken phone-tree etiquette and continued making calls even after getting off the phone with Mrs. Boyd. It was a breach of etiquette that our mothers forgave, obviously, but one that they agreed tacitly, behind the back of Mr. Lindell, added unnecessarily to the general confusion of the day.
The disappearance of a teenage girl, with all the potential tragic consequences that implies, is a relatively common literary device, but Pittard adds her own twist. The present tense of the novel is more than two decades on; Nora’s schoolmates were marked by the event at the time, but its implications have continued to influence them throughout those decades. While the group has dispersed and moved on with all the diversions (marriage, kids, divorce, even crimes) that that implies, they still get together on occasion and when they do they keep returning to Nora’s disappearance and how it has influenced them ever since.
No one knows exactly what happened. Two of the gang said they had seen her at the bus station that day, but one says “she got into the passenger side of a beat-up Catalina just before the bus pulled out”. Was Nora running away and simply hitching a ride? Or was the driver of the car her murderer who has hidden the body? And is Sarah Jeffreys telling the truth when she insists she had driven Nora to the abortion clinic in Forest Hollow the day before, after Nora had taken a pregnancy test in the school washroom? Teenagers being teenagers, the details of both what was supposedly seen and speculation on what might have happened are constantly changing, adapted to the interests of the individual doing the recounting.
That uncertainty of memory is enhanced by the fact that Nora and her sister, Sissy, were being raised by their father, following the death of their mother. That is unusual in this middle class community (better characterized by the parental phone-tree and the 10:30 curfews of the teens) — which adds fuel to the speculative potential.
Strangely, in the months to come, it was Nora’s younger sister, Sissy, who garnered much of our attention. We thought about Nora, of course. We wondered where she was, what she was doing. We told stories. But the more time that passed and the more we began to understand she was really gone, the more we kept those fantasies to ourselves, saved them for the times we spent alone after school, in our bedrooms, or in the kitchen in the dark before anybody else was awake, when our stomachs ached from an emptiness both primitive and prehistoric.
Pittard handles that aspect of the story more than competently, but the strength of the novel lies in the way that the gang has extended “those fantasies” and the uncertainty/speculation into their adult life. Did Nora in fact escape to Arizona where she found a waitressing job and a friendly Mexican male, as some argue? Does that explain some of the otherwise strange aspects of the way Sissy is choosing to live her life? Various members of the group keep saying they have spotted an adult Nora in locations around the world. And perhaps most important, can all of the gang use this event, and how it may have turned out, to explain and excuse some of their own failings as they struggle with adult life? Uncertainty, and the ability to speculate about what might have happened, can be a very convenient excuse to explain the unexplainable.
In the final analysis, The Fates Will Find Their Way deserves to be described as a “come-of-age” novel, rather than a “coming-of-age” one. I’d also observe that it is stronger on the process of what happened and continues to happen than it is on the characters involved — if Pittard had managed to give the cast even more depth, it would have been an even better novel, one that invited re-reading, rather than simply providing a worthwhile first read.
Comments on the book are certainly welcome, but let’s also move on to year two of KfC’s own “five book exercise”. Simply leave a comment listing the last five books that you have read (you don’t have to have liked them all — an indication of what sparks your reading curiosity is every bit as valuable as the outcome of the read) and I’ll offer a recommendation that reflects my impression of what your tastes are. Yes, given who and where I am, there will probably be more Canadian titles recommended than in John’s effort at the ToB, but it won’t be strictly Canadian.
This is not altruism on my part — I suspect I got more leads on books to read from the lists that visitors provided last year than leads that I gave people. So do pay attention to people’s lists — and if you have a recommendation of your own to make to someone, don’t hesitate to provide it. All thoughts are welcome.