Staff Picks

Staff Pick: Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way

By posted at 6:01 am on January 25, 2011 5

coverContemporary fiction is full of disappearing girls. I’m in no position to suggest that this is in any way a bad thing—I’m guilty of a fictional disappearing girl myself—but the basic plot is so well-worn at this point that it’s difficult to find a new path through the territory. In her elegant debut novel The Fates Will Find Their Way, Hannah Pittard defies the odds; she takes a story we’ve all read before—a girl disappears, the lives of those left behind are changed forever in the aftermath—and manages to create something entirely original.

Her narrative centers around the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Nora Lindell, who fails to return home on a Halloween night in a mid-Atlantic suburb. The day after Halloween a few of the boys she left behind gather in one of their basements, schoolmates and friends, lingering until the last possible moment before curfew, dissecting the mystery:

As it turned out, we’d all seen Nora the day before, but seen her in different places doing different things—we’d seen her at the swing sets, at the riverbank, in the shopping mall. We’d seen her making phone calls in the telephone booth outside the liquor store, inside the train station, behind the dollar store.

Pittard writes in the first-person plural and the effect is delicate and sublime, an examination of collective memory and collective obsession that manages to be both piercing and dreamlike. They’d all seen Nora the day before: two of them claim to have seen her at the bus station; one claims he saw her get into a Catalina, but his description of the driver and the car keeps changing. A boy says he saw her at the airport in Houston, where she told him she was en route to Arizona, and a flight attendant does in fact report seeing a schoolgirl who matches Nora’s description on an airplane. Nora got into a Catalina, or didn’t get into a Catalina, or flew to Arizona, or didn’t. She was dead within hours of her disappearance, or she lived for years. She may or may not have been photographed in Mumbai.

The years pass and the boys acquire jobs and wives and daughters of their own, but Nora’s disappearance was the defining event of their shared adolescence and in the decades that follow that night they remain drawn to the mystery. They fall in and out of love, they experience the death and calamity and joy that comes with ever-increasing years spent on earth, and through it all they wonder what became of her. They project their own loves and fears onto her, they speculate about her, they tell and retell the story of the disappearance, they are drawn to Nora’s little sister. There are possible sightings, never confirmed. Nora is part of what holds them together. They cling to Nora, and in doing so they cling to their shared past.

The Fates Will Find Their Way is about a disappearance, but it’s also about the difficulty of growing up, of moving into adulthood and letting go. It’s a brilliant and beautifully written work.

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5 Responses to “Staff Pick: Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way”

  1. Nick
    at 10:01 am on January 25, 2011

    Pure conjecture as I haven’t read the book (though I plan on it), but how is this conceit “entirely original?” The united group of boys sounds an awful lot like the one in The Virgin Suicides…

  2. Emily St. John Mandel
    at 11:07 am on January 25, 2011

    Nick, I didn’t so much mean that her use of the first-person plural and a group of suburban boys is entirely original (yes, there are absolutely shades of Eugenides), more that she’s taken what strikes me as an entirely original approach to the basic “girl disappears under mysterious circumstances” story, in the way that she takes the angle of collective memory and examines the way the legends we construct around childhood events can play out over the rest of our lives. Glad you plan on reading it.

  3. Lou
    at 4:14 pm on January 25, 2011

    I have to say reading this review was almost eerily close to the effect that reading the stunning The Virgin Suicides had on me, and I’m sure most readers. Not only the first-person plural, but the themes, dream-like quality, the adolescent tragedy that effects young boys who then grow up to forever fixate on the dead girl(s)…..very strange.

  4. jonathan evison
    at 12:54 am on January 26, 2011

    . . .great coverage, emily! . . . withe recommendations from you and lee boudreaux, i can’t wait to crack this baby!

  5. Book Review: The Fates Will Find Their Way | Confessions of a Book Lush
    at 6:54 pm on January 28, 2011

    […] just go out and read the damn book! And then come back so we can discuss :) (also, check out Emily St John Mandell’s review on The Millions — less spoilerish […]

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