A Spindle Splintered

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.

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4 Responses to A Spindle Splintered

  1. Rohan Maitzen says:

    Those are really interesting comments about timeliness and being ‘dated.’ As I’ve been reading and thinking about Ali Smith’s seasons books, I’ve been thinking about some similar questions – will all the ‘to the moment’ aspects of them make them more or less durable? There’s a lot that’s very time specific in, say, Dickens, but often infused with a lot of metaphorical energy so that the references are both not essential to appreciating the novels and sort of portable to other times and places. It’s hard to predict, I think, which of our most timely books will keep feeling relevant. You’ve renewed my curiosity about Lockwood’s novel, which I still haven’t read.

    • Teresa says:

      The Ali Smith series is another good example! Even if they don’t “last,” they’re so insightful about this moment that I can’t ding them for not being “timeless.” And, as you say, we can’t necessarily know what will last.

  2. Jeane says:

    That’s a very good point, about how some books can be appreciated outside of their time, and others will leave future readers scratching their heads, so to speak. I’ve tried to read a few older books written in the 1800’s, that were nearly incomprehensible because the descriptions of people’s clothing and other things, which were obviously meant to convey information about their personalities, meant nothing to me. It made me realize that the classics stay with us because they either don’t dive into quite as much detail, or because they let the reader know what those things mean. On the other hand, I think books that describe particular places and times so precisely, can capture it for future people to know and maybe understand, if it communicates well.

    • Teresa says:

      I can think of a lot of classics where pieces of the story went totally over my head. I loved Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series, but I know there were aspects of the political situation that I completely missed. But there was enough stuff that I did understand that I was able to appreciate the series.

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