It was Halloween night when 16-year-old Nora Liddell went missing. Last seen (perhaps) getting into a beat-up Catalina near the bus station, Nora vanished from her upper-middle-class suburb, never to be heard from again. But in Hannah Pittard’s debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, her absence renders her present in a way her presence never could have.
This novel, which is being released this week by Ecco Books, takes readers into the shared mind of Nora’s former community, specifically the mind of the boys around her age. Using first-person plural narration, Pittard creates a group consciousness in which each member of the group is both observing and being observed. It’s a technique that could easily seem gimmicky, but I found it surprisingly effective.
When the book opens, the boys are teenagers, just like Nora at the time of her disappearance. As straight teenage boys, they tend to have a one-track mind, thinking mostly about girls and sex. Thus, the opening chapters make for some extremely uncomfortable reading, filled with descriptions of the boys’ experiences, both real and imagined. Girls are mostly viewed as something to be taken, objects to be possessed, territories to conquer. But hovering in the background, part of the group voice, are the men the boys will become. These men are themselves sometimes horrified by their own clumsy grabs at sexual maturity, even more so as they consider their own daughters.
The book moves back and forth in time, as the boys (and later the men) reflect on the past and note how the present colors their views. We learn about things that happen when the boys are in their 30s and 40s long before we get to their 20s. With each chapter, the narrative focus moves ever so slightly ahead, but it’s not a constant and steady progression. Instead, there’s a sense that past, present, and future are connected, each one speaking to the other. This lack of a linear story, however, does not make the book any less absorbing; I was riveted almost from the start. There’s a wonderfully compelling quality to Pittard’s prose that made it difficult to put this book down. I wanted to read on, not because I needed to know what would happen next, but because I was interested in the characters’ emotional journeys.
The one person who does get something of a linear story is Nora. Every few chapters, the book leaves the community of boys to imagine a handful of possible futures for Nora. There’s the future that never happened because the driver of the Catalina was a predator. There’s the more long-lasting future out west, built on a report that a girl who looked like Nora was spotted on a plane to Arizona. As the boys learn more of Nora’s last weeks with them and as they get tantalizing glimpses of a woman with Nora’s red hair, they build a whole other life for Nora—and perhaps a dream for themselves. Somehow, Nora got away; these boys have not. It’s striking (and perhaps a little too convenient) that they all stayed in this little community. Those who left for college all came back, most of them marrying—or having affairs with—girls they knew growing up.
Although the mystery of Nora’s disappearance looms large in the lives of the boys, it’s not really the central mystery of the book. Her story, even if it’s complete fantasy, is the clearest one in the novel. A bigger mystery is how we become who we become. What kept these boys right where they were? Perhaps their staying in this suburban community is meant to represent the human inability to break out of patterns laid by the past. Even if the boys had relocated geographically, would they have really escaped?
But the even bigger mystery is the mystery we are to each other. This is where Pittard’s seemingly self-consciously experimental choice of the third-person point of view really pays off. Although in some respects the boys think as a single unit, as individuals they are unknown to the others. At some point, each one is set apart from the group, one for engaging in shocking criminal behavior and others simply for holding back a key piece of information or telling a story that probably isn’t even true. The central fact is that in these cases, it becomes clear that the we telling the story isn’t a single we at all—yet the narrative we still has a voice, the voice of the community. All stand apart from the others, but all are part of the others. The interplay is fascinating. This is definitely a case of a stylistic oddity serving its story well.
All in all, a successful debut. I look forward to following what I hope will be a long and fruitful career for Hannah Pittard. Thanks to Ecco Books for the review copy.