Short books seem to be the answer for my recent inability to focus on my reading for very long. I don’t have to hold all the elements of the plot in my head for days upon days, just a few days, or even a few hours, as was the case with Alix E. Harrow’s A Spindle Splintered, which I got through in a single evening.
The main character in this fractured retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story is Zinnia Gray. Zinnia is preparing to turn 21 and also preparing to die as the rare illness she’s had since childhood is eating up her internal organs. She’s always loved the Sleeping Beauty story — she’s even studied its various iterations in college — so her best friend Charm decides to immerse her in the fairy tale, bringing her to a tower with a spinning wheel and a cozy bed. But then the story ends up becoming more real than Zinnia or Charm intended.
I often enjoy clever retellings of fairy tales, and this was a good one. I liked how Harrow explored the appeal of this particular fairy tale and shed new light on it. For example, what kind of life would Princess Aurora have if she weren’t forced into an enchanted sleep? Can a curse also be a blessing? And how do various tales reflect their times?
This book very much reflects our current times. Zinnia and Charm use lots of pop culture references and shorthand that are very much the language of a certain kind of very online and aware young person. (There’s a reference to not talking about “Jo” anymore when a “portkey” is mentioned as a way to get out of a fantasy world.) This is not a complaint! But it did get me thinking about the difference between books for right now and books for always.
I think there’s a tendency to assume that the best books are those that can exist outside their particular contexts. That if the references in a book are “dated,” then the book is inferior. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It may be that the book is not eternal, but not every book needs to be. Few books have spoken to me in the last couple of years as strongly as Patricia Lockwood’s No One Else Is Talking About This. It captured so perfectly what it feels like to spend a lot of time on Twitter and what is both enjoyable and unsatisfying about it. It wore new grooves into my brain about my own social media use. I cannot deny its power or Lockwood’s skill in wielding that power. At the same time, I think it’s entirely possible than in 10 years, the book will be entirely incomprehensible to people who don’t have clear memories of this moment.
Placing a book in its moment is not a bad thing to do, nor is pitching a book to a particular (even if limited) audience. Not everything needs to be for everybody, and if a book is most likely to resonate strongly with a limited group of people at a specific time, that’s ok. In fact, I think A Spindle Splintered is specifically about how stories evolve and how they don’t. There are aspects of any story that are best understood in their specific context. And there are pieces of those stories that can echo across time. But timelessness in and of itself need not be the only mark of a good story.