An unsolved mystery and many revelations
The tragic event at the heart of “The Fates Will Find Their Way,’’ Hannah Pittard’s first novel, will call to mind such books as Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,’’ Jeffrey Eugenides’s “The Virgin Suicides,’’ Marisha Pessl’s “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,’’ and, most recently, Myla Goldberg’s “The False Friend.’’ Each of these novels involves the disappearance or violent death of teenagers or young adults, and explores issues such as culpability, regret, obsession, and guilt.
“The Fates Will Find Their Way’’ offers a story line that on its surface seems straightforward: In a sleepy, unnamed town, 16-year-old Nora Lindell goes missing one Halloween, leaving behind her parents and a younger sister, Sissy, as well as a frenzy of gossip. Yet Pittard uses this mystery (which she declines to resolve) to delve into a number of other “fates’’ — namely, those of the teenage boys who were part of Nora’s social circle.
In fact, Nora’s disappearance — or perhaps murder — becomes almost beside the point; the real story here is about how those boys navigate their way into adulthood. Over time, they theorize that Nora was kidnapped, or murdered, or even ran away to start a new life elsewhere. She is a mythic figure, steeped in rumor, fantasy, innuendo, and wild guesses. “At least we were able to acknowledge the futility of the fantasies, even if we still couldn’t control them,’’ Pittard writes.
The story is told in the first-person plural, from the perspective of these boys (and, eventually, men). Employing a collective voice is not an original narrative device, but it works effectively for this novel, which swirls around various lives, tracing their histories, yearnings, secrets, and (often faulty) memories.
Sissy Lindell becomes a more central character than Nora, as the boys are preoccupied with “what life must be like for her in that three-story Tudor at the foot of the cul-de-sac.’’ One boy, Paul Epstein, can’t help noticing how, over a summer, Sissy has evolved from “a middle schooler, a classic little sister, a complete annoyance, to a full-blown nymph, a dewy-mouthed ninth-grader whose mere promenade down a hallway drove varsity captains wild with boyish lust.’’
Indeed, young male lust plays a prominent role in the novel. Pittard is adept at conveying how sex confers status and power among certain boys, stirring envy and suspicion in their peers; and she also explores the dangerous aspects of desire. While one boy, Trey Stephens, boasts in detail about his supposed sexual encounters with Nora, a local girl named Sarah Jeffreys is raped by another friend’s college-age brother.
It isn’t until the boys are middle-aged men, with wives and children of their own, that they fully understand Sarah’s mother, and see that “what we’d always assumed was a nagging overprotectiveness was in fact a compulsive, if not remorseful, form of devotion to us all.’’ And years after graduating from high school, the “fetish for girls in uniform’’ that Trey once harbored proves more than a harmless fantasy: He is convicted of having sex with a minor, and dies of a heart attack in prison.
Sissy, who becomes a mother herself, struggles to figure out the “right’’ way to continue grieving over the loss of her sister: “My girls trick-or-treat on Halloween,’’ she says. “Is that stupid? Is that normal? I don’t know. Should it be a day of reverence?’’
“The Fates Will Find Their Way’’ is concerned with searching questions rather than the relief of resolution. What might have been a frustrating approach in a lesser novel proves compelling in this one; the author is able to sustain the suspense even after you realize that Nora’s fate will not be revealed. The best thing about this novel is Pittard’s prose, which has a hypnotic quality, and the seamless, almost cinematic way she weaves together these various lives. Her novel is not without flaws — it favors ambiguity almost too much — yet it evinces the great promise of an emerging young writer.
Carmela Ciuraru, editor of several anthologies and author of “Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms,’’ to be published in June, can be reached at email@example.com.