Book review: ‘The Fates Will Find Their Way'

"The Fates Will Find Their Way" by Hannah Pittard, Ecco, 256 pages, $22.99.

It’s been said that life is like a game of cards: The hand you’re dealt is destiny, but the way you play it is free will.

But what if the hand you’re playing isn’t your own? In “The Fates Will Find Their Way,” Hannah Pittard’s graceful, self-assured debut novel, she examines the collective fascination of a community with the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl on Halloween without a trace, never to return.

Seen through the eyes of a group of boys who were her schoolmates and admirers, the story begins 30 years later, remembering the first day they got the news and convened to compare notes on Nora Lindell.

A single, unnamed narrator, speaking for the now middle-aged boys, moves forward and back in time to recall their clandestine powwows and speculation as weeks, then years pass without any word on Nora’s whereabouts. These meetings continue into adulthood. Clues, possibilities and sightings are weighed and debated, with the resulting theories so elaborately thought-out that they blur the boundaries between fantasy and fiction.

In the first scenario, Nora goes only as far as the forest near a river in their hometown, the predictable victim of an abduction. But after one of the boys claims to have spotted her at the airport, heading for Phoenix to visit her grandmother, they picture Nora in Arizona -- first as a waitress, next as the mother of twins and wife of a doting Mexican cook.

Eventually she makes her way to India, glimpsed in footage from a cafe bombing in Mumbai.

The focus on Nora’s fate and the way it illuminates the narrators’ unrealized dreams is perhaps the biggest difference between “The Fates Will Find Their Way” and the book that seems to have inspired it, “The Virgin Suicides.”

Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel about a family whose five teenage daughters kill themselves over the course of a year is also narrated by a group of middle-aged friends who have never gotten over the girls’ deaths. Both books are set in suburban neighborhoods; Pittard’s Nora -- though only her sister knows about it --— has considered suicide; even the family name, Lindell, is a coy nod to the Lisbons of Grosse Point, Mich.

But where Eugenides chronicled a fact-finding mission to understand the Lisbon sisters and their suicidal tendencies, Pittard concerns herself with the losses and gains of the narrators’ lives. Nora’s fate drives the book -- and the boys’ imaginations -- but early on we see that if what happened to Nora were really the point, the guesswork by a handful of teenage boys could hardly tell the whole story.

Instead, there’s no predictable, sobbing closure for her parents and sister. Three children who may or may not be hers show up in town -- one called Nora -- but her sister playfully conceals their parentage. Even the bones that could be Nora’s go unidentified. She remains a cipher, a mirage that lures the boys into adulthood while they piece together the more accessible lives of their tight-knit circle of friends.

Nor is she, we discover, the only one “gone missing.” One of the boys' mothers commits suicide; their friend Sarah is raped by a boy she’d known “all her life” and eventually leaves town; they’re shocked to discover the “other woman” in one of their friends’ lives, hidden up until the day of her funeral. The narrators note losses of a different kind: the teenager marked forever after his seduction by an older woman, the popular boy who ends up a convicted pedophile.

In time, the awareness this suffering generates transforms the boys from horny “creeps” eager for lurid details to parents who worry when their children reach the same vulnerable age. They allow that some things are better left unimagined. Their disbelief at their friends’ affairs, divorces and permanent bachelorhood gives way to an understanding that marriage, children and pool parties don’t always add up to normalcy.

“Certain outcomes are unavoidable, invariable, absolutely unaffectable, and yet completely unpredictable,” the narrators say. “But maybe not Nora’s. Maybe she was the only one who escaped.”

Maybe not. Pittard wisely lets us make up our own minds about Nora’s significance and whether she sidestepped her fate in this sly but compassionate cat-and-mouse story. Getting lost in the boys’ dreamy, half-lit world, gradually discovering the truth -- so smoothly embedded, so indirectly revealed, that we don’t see whose fate has really been told until the end -- feels a lot like real life.

Pittard, who grew up in Atlanta and attended the University of Virginia, teaches fiction at DePaul University in Chicago.