I’ll just come right out and say it: I enjoy books so much more when there’s lots of sex in them. And there is so much sex in Hannah Pittard’s smart, affecting, and beautifully crafted debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way.
Inappropriate touching. Masturbation, both public and private. Some grateful fucking. The fetishized hemlines of private-school girls’ skirts. All the boys keep staring at the hot Russian neighborhood mom’s ass. It’s the male gaze times a million—everyone seems to be quietly violating everybody else, in one way or another.
The intertwined tale of a vanished teenage girl named Nora and the hometown boys who loved her—as told through their omniscient perspective—The Fates is The Virgin Suicides for a new generation. Pittard’s depictions of sexual activity are spare and straightforward, but they feel extremely (and credibly) dangerous. Take this scene between two teenagers:
“Just let me see it,” he said. “Just let me see it.”
She looked away and he pulled down the fabric hard, just enough so that her pubic hair was exposed.
He made sounds. She closed her eyes. One hand held down her pants, the other hand was around himself, working.
“Look at it,” he said.
She looked at his face instead, but she was crying a little, hoping it would be over, wanting him to have whatever he needed to finish.
It’s tricky territory, all this underage sex going on in the book. Some of it is innocent, and some of it is sexy, and some of it is disturbing. (There are also references to pedophilia and rape, although they are not rendered explicitly.) That’s sex in America, I guess. We’re a bunch of demanding hypocrites, greedy for stimulation, while we judge everyone around us for wanting the same exact thing—even (or especially) if it’s in a different form. I have done it, and so have you. Can we please have one day where we don’t lie about it?
Pittard seems hell-bent on making her Greek chorus of narrators tell the truth about their own lives, even as they’re mired in fantasies about Nora’s. She tells the story in tight chapters that bounce back and forth between the boys’ youthful existence, their present-day lives, and the imagined possibilities of Nora’s life. Did she hop on a flight, never to be seen again? Did she hitch a ride out West and start life anew? Were there darker forces at work? “It’s the stuff of fantasies, not of real life,” the collective voice says of one possible scenario.
In fantasies, you can get into strangers’ cars. You can have sex with men you don’t know. They’ll love you and pet you and whisper things that high school boys don’t know how to whisper. They’ll fall hard for you and do anything you tell them to, including take you home whenever you want.
Each possibility is teased out deliciously, and the reader uncovers another side of Nora with each of her appearances—“real” or in the boys’ imaginings—in the book. And what of these boys, trapped in their hometown? They grow into men, still trapped: “It seemed, some days, that life was nothing more than a tally of the people who’d left us behind,” they say wistfully.
Meanwhile, we find out the deep, dark secrets of the boys themselves, from childhood to adulthood, together and individually. For the book to work, their collective voice must ring true, and Pittard nails that honest, smart-ass youthful energy. “We never understood why Minka Dinnerman’s dad kept a copy of Hustler tucked in the recess behind the base of the toilet in the first-floor bathroom of the Dinnerman house,” she writes.
Mrs. Dinnerman was the hottest of all the moms. In some ways, it was a shame that she had to be called a mom at all… we all thought it was kind of weird—Mr. Dinnerman’s greedy and unappreciative need to have more than one hot naked lady in his life.
If The Fates has any flaw, it is that Pittard poses perhaps too many questions, and these questions sometimes get in the story’s way. But these questions, distracting as they can be, are at the heart of this novel. And they are worthy of reflection, not least because they are surrounded by so many wise, lovely, and yes—sexy—passages.