Review: The Fates Will Find Their Way, Hannah Pittard; plus a question about collective narrators

READ THIS EVERYONE. READ THIS BOOK. Because I want to know if you would like it as much as I did. I really liked it an awful lot. I like it more and more the more I think about it, though I was not blown away as I was reading it. Sometimes when I’m writing a review, I’ll find that I’m talking myself out of whatever book I’m writing about. As I enumerate the book’s flaws, I’ll realize that they were pretty damning, after all, and that although I enjoyed aspects of the book, I won’t ever want to return to it. The opposite of that happened when I started jotting down review notes about The Fates Will Find Their Way.

The Fates Will Find Their Way is the story of a girl called Nora Lindell, who disappears from her town at the age of sixteen, told by a group of teenage (and eventually adult) boys from her town. Most of them remain in the town all their lives, marrying and having children and experiencing the everyday tragedies you experience in adulthood. And all along they wonder what happened to Nora Lindell. They construct elaborate stories about what might have happened, based on scraps of evidence that come their way over the years.

I know what you are thinking! You are thinking about The Virgin Suicides. I know, man. I thought about that too, and for that reason I expected to hate The Fates Will Find Their Way, because I hated The Virgin Suicides. (I theorize that my subconscious recognized that Jeffrey Eugenides is a pretentious poophead, an opinion I base solely on the author picture from The Marriage Plot — shut up, I can judge him however I want!) But in spite of the disappearing-girls similarity, and the similarity of both books being narrated by a group of boys obsessed with an unknowable girl, the books are really quite different.

I love the collective narrator as a device. I recognize that it’s a tricky device to pull off, and I can’t think of that many books that have done it. Just this and Virgin Suicides and Then We Came to the End. But I like it a lot! I think there are times in your life when you feel part of a we. So I like that device.

I also love a book that lets you decide what you want to believe. Throughout the novel, we are presented with narrations about the possible fates of Nora Lindell that seem far-fetched at first; and then we discover the small piece of evidence that came to light at some point over the months and years following her disappearance, that led the boys to concoct this version of her story. Her bones were swept downriver; or else she died in childbirth; or else she moved to Mumbai and died of cancer; or else — any number of things. Her story is unknowable but the boys are determined to discover it anyway. And I liked it that while the story of Nora Lindell might be abduction, rape, and murder (I am so over books about the rape-abduction-murder of young girls and women), that is only one possible story for her out of many, and not the one that seems, in the end, the most plausible.

[Note from the future: This is the point in the review at which I began talking myself way into this book.]

The structure of Fates is just so tight. Sometimes when I thought that an anecdote about the boys was just that, an anecdote, a thematic emotional thing about how they handled or didn’t handle disaster, it would come back around and tie into the life and death of Nora Lindell. Or else sometimes that wouldn’t happen, and it would just be a devastating anecdote about the things people do to each other and how bewildering and unexpected people can be no matter how long you’ve known them.

The emotional structure, too, worked incredibly well. You get told up front about the fates of many of these boys; others you learn about as the book proceeds, to sometimes quietly devastating emotional effect. You see the girls of the town through the boys’ eyes and no other way; but sometimes you can pick up on some sense that the girls are resisting the construction being placed on them by the boys. But why exactly they are resisting or how or what stories they are telling about themselves, you can’t know (just as the boys can’t know).

I am inclined to give it five stars the more I think about how well it was put together. It was put together awfully well, y’all, and that is not a compliment I dish out willy-nilly. I’m going to have to mark this one down for a reread in a year or so, to see if it holds up.

I’m curious how y’all feel about first person plural narratives. Memory has said that she can get hung up on how exactly a narration was produced when it’s in first person; does that extend to “we” books, Memory? Because I too am bothered by things like present tense first person narration — what, are they talking into a machine as they walk around? — but nothing like that happens to me with first-person plural. Is it possibly so far into the realms of the kooky that I just give in and accept it?

  • http://shelflove.wordpress.com Teresa

    I read this when it first came out, and I wish I could remember it better. I do recall that I thought the first-person plural narration worked really well, and I was glad that so much was left ambiguous. And looking back at my review (http://shelflove.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/the-fates-will-find-their-way-review/), I see that one of the things I liked was the interplay of being part of a we and also part of an I. And it looks like my feelings about the structure were similar to yours.

    • http://readingtheend.com Jenny

      It’s very possible I read this because of your review! I stopped keeping track of where I heard about books, which is less cumbersome for me, but also doesn’t let me credit people for the awesome stuff I read. I have in mind a project for late this year where I reread books I’ve reviewed on this blog to see how they hold up, and this is going to be one of the ones I try it with. I can see it becoming a favorite. (maybe)

  • http://theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com The Literary Omnivore

    I think first person plural feels like such a stylized choiceโ€”it’s something that would never happen in nature in a consistent, sustained wayโ€”that it clears the barrier.

    • http://readingtheend.com Jenny

      That’s a good way of putting it. I agree with you. It’s like a Baz Luhrmann film in a way — it’s SO stylized you don’t even bother worrying about it.

  • http://baystatera.com Laurie C

    I was going to say I don’t mind a collective narrative voice, but then I remembered that the collective narrative voice in The Weird Sisters by Elizabeth Brown did get on my nerves. I wonder if it makes a difference that I listened to it on audio, though?

    • http://readingtheend.com Jenny

      How did they handle it in audio? My initial thought was that they had the three girls reading in stereo, and then I thought, no, that would be the most annoying thing in the history of the world. That is probably not what they really did.

      • http://baystatera.com Laurie C

        No it was just a single narrator who read the whole thing and said “we” this and “we” that, so it was a little strange.

  • aartichapati

    I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book with a collective narrative voice – it sounds complicated! I feel like movies have it more, but I don’t know why I feel that way as I can’t think of a movie that is like that, either.

    It’s funny you say that you mention bad things about books in reviews and then worry about talking yourself or other people out of reading them. I worry about this, too, and now I think I’ve gone the other way where I talk about good things a lot and perhaps not all the bad things. Sigh. It’s hard to realize that you’re imperfect ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • http://readingtheend.com Jenny

      Never ever ever? Not The Virgin Suicides or Then We Came to the End? I liked one of those two books a lot.

      Also, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with focusing on the positive! I much prefer raving about books I loved than complaining about books I hated.

  • http://raidergirl3-anadventureinreading.blogspot.com/ raidergirl3

    I’ve made note of this title because I completely agree with “Not The Virgin Suicides or Then We Came to the End? I liked one of those two books a lot.” And I agree with the one you liked as well, so now I am really intrigued by Fates.

    I don’t remember The Weird Sisters being written in that style, but I see that it is tagged thusly at Librarything. I also agree that sometimes the style can make up for a lot that might be lacking. Julie Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic might also be in first person plural narrative, and it worked so well! Also at LT, I found The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett is tagged that way.

    I like FPP narrative (did I just invent a acronym?) but it is very unique and I couldn’t read it all the time. The novelty of it, when it is done well, is what makes a great impact.

    • http://readingtheend.com Jenny

      Andrea Barrett’s name sounds familiar, but I think I just have her mixed up with Andrea Levy. Derp. I will check out The Air We Breathe. Now that I’ve started thinking about collective narration I’m rather curious to see what other authors have done with it.

      I like your acronym! Very reasonable acronym!

  • http://twitter.com/MumsyNancy NWK (@MumsyNancy)

    Hm, you mean they say “we” instead of “I”? That’s so strange, I can’t imagine it working well. I do love the way you describe the tight structure (vis. the anecdotes). It sounds quite interesting, should I look for it at the library FOR MY NOOK? :p

    • http://readingtheend.com Jenny

      Yep, that is exactly what I mean, and yes, it does work well, and indeed I think you should get it from the library FOR YOUR NOOK. And then tell me what you thought of it. If you are not persuaded right away when you start reading it, persist for a little while.

      • http://twitter.com/MumsyNancy NWK (@MumsyNancy)

        I did borrow it on my Nook, and it was clever and interesting and well structured, but it left me feeling very, very depressed. Oh well.

  • http://astripedarmchair.wordpress.com/ Eva

    I literally read the first sentence of your review & then went and put a hold on in the library. Because you told me to. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’ll be back to read the rest of the post when I’ve read the book!

    • http://readingtheend.com Jenny

      Aw, Eva. I am so touched and moved right now. I think you will like it a lot. I’m excited to see what you think about it when you’ve read it.

  • http://www.libraryhungry.com libraryhungry

    You’ve totally sold me on the book, but you’ve also hit on something I’ve been thinking about lately–what makes authors choose to use unusual narrative structures, what the story gains from it, and whether it’s a trade-off that loses something, as well. I posted about it myself after I read this, but what it boils down to is that there’s a real risk to it–you’re giving up some of the fluency that people have with reading a novel in exchange for (hopefully) some extra level of communication. If the book doesn’t completely succeed, the choice can really drag it down. But if it does succeed, it can add not just the intended layer of meaning, but also a layer of memorability and originality. It’s a really interesting question–as a non-writer, I’m often annoyed when people do this, but when it works, it’s either seamless or wonderful.

    • http://readingtheend.com Jenny

      I agree. I’m always impressed when an author succeeds at something that seems so unsucceedable-at. I always remember the authors who introduced me to a new way of telling stories — like the first book I ever read with multiple narrators. (It was Caroline B. Cooney’s Among Friends, please don’t judge me).

  • http://wormhole.carnelianvalley.com Charlie

    That realisation thing is an eye-opener. I think it’s one of my favourite aspects of reviewing, it gives you a whole new opinion on a book without having to ask anyone else. I don’t mind group narration, but yes, it has to be done well, and the characters all need to have a reason for being there (for example if there’s a random narrator who nobody knows and the connection doesn’t get explained that can ruin the effect). This does indeed sound the sort of narration that would work, especially as lots of ideas are put forward.

    • http://readingtheend.com Jenny

      Yes, that’s one of the great things about reviewing! Or just even writing down notes about books. Writing is thinking. When you write it all down you start realizing things you didn’t even know you’d been thinking.

  • http://classicvasilly.wordpress.com Vasilly

    Damn it! I didn’t want to read this but now I want to!! I just glanced at your review of Code Name Verity and I want to read that one too now. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • http://readingtheend.com Jenny

      You are WELCOME. :p

  • http://litlove.wordpress.com/ litlove

    This sounds most intriguing. I like multiple perspectives (although ‘we’ is not exactly that). I haven’t read either The Virgin Suicides or Then We Came To The End (I know, what HAVE I been doing with my life?) so perhaps I should try one of those first. But I do like all the different stories that arise in the absence of Nora. Have you ever read The French Lieutenants’s Woman by John Fowles? Not every one loves the multiple endings to the novel, but I do. I really like being given different narrative options.

    I also like the sound of Code Name Verity, too!

    • http://readingtheend.com Jenny

      I liked Then We Came to the End! It was not the best book I ever read, but it was pretty good.

      I love being given different narrative options! I’ll add the John Fowles book to my list.

  • http://reading-rambo.blogspot.com Alice (@alice_sings)

    I’m just happy when you write about stuff.

    P TO THE S — Jennfrey Eugenides doesn’t seem as douchy after reading Middlesex. Unless you’ve read that and he still does. Then he definitely does. Otherwise, no.

    • http://reading-rambo.blogspot.com Alice (@alice_sings)

      JEFFREY. Shit.

    • http://readingtheend.com Jenny

      I read the first, like, third of it? And he still seemed pretty douchey and I hate hate hate reading about incest. It’s boring and dreary! So I think Jeffrey Eugenides is not for me. Also, either he or Jonathan Franzen or Jonathan Lethem or Joshua Safran Foer keeps talking shit about David Foster Wallace even though that dude was his friend and is now deceased.

      • http://baystatera.com Laurie C

        I think you’re thinking of Jonathan Franzen. So many J first names!

  • http://bookgazing.dreamwidth.org bookgazing

    I think ‘Even the Dogs’ is first person plural – it’s narrated by what I guess I came to understand as a troupe of ghosts, that grows as more of the addicts die. I’m not making it sound appetising am I? But I loved it – McGregor’s prose is delicious. And the parts of ‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood in the voice of the chorus are collective (the bits I enjoyed the most, as I thought the main narrative was a bit dull, although maybe deliberately so). That one I did imagine with people speaking in stereo, I suppose because that’s the way a chorus would sound on stage (I always think that sounds wonderfully creepy).

    I loved Virgin Suicides too btw.

    • http://readingtheend.com Jenny

      Hahaha, well, what you have said about Even the Dogs makes it sound very silly, but I also value your opinion. So, noted.

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