I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I like to read fiction; I think I feel fulfilled after reading a book with particularly beautiful prose or a really interesting plot, inspired to create and go out into the world with a renewed sense of vigor. I believe that time can’t be wasted; especially in the middle of a pandemic, when an afternoon can stretch out into an eternity and loneliness is always waiting to punch you in the gut. Still, I can’t help but wish that I’d spent a few of my pandemic hours doing something other than reading The Mysteries by Marisa Silver. In theory, this novel—that centers on the intoxicating, dangerous relationship that two little girls can tumble into—should be a rich text, with descriptions of female attachment that ring true to anyone who once found themselves head over heels in a childhood friendship. Unfortunately, it is distracted, jumping around too much to provide even cursory information about peripheral characters, making everyone mostly flat and one-dimensional. And the apex of the book doesn’t do anything to challenge these caricatures.
Miggy and Ellen, the two little girls at the heart of this book, are supposed “best friends” involved in the uneven power dynamic that young girls seem especially susceptible to. Miggy is the apparent leader of the duo, though she has insecurities of her own that Silver details to good effect. She is socially awkward and disliked by her peers, aggressively latching onto the sweet Ellen, the only one who will give her a chance. Ellen, as Miggy’s counterpart, is demure and pliable, described as “soft and round,” and hesitantly compared to her impulsive, energetic friend. She is more grown up than Miggy, whose childishness becomes irritating and hurts Ellen. Silver clearly has the tools to create multidimensional characters: this relationship starts off strong, and there is the space for more nuance; it just doesn’t lead anywhere.
Friendships, and the power dynamics that form within them—between people of all ages and genders—can be just as intoxicating as romantic relationships, and are fascinating to explore. Friendships between two young girls have been most described in books aimed at children, and The Mysteries promises a more adult perspective. It begins with gusto, with the two girls mimicking their parents and observing womanhood. But despite some passages that indicate an understanding of this depth—and the impact kids’ relationships can have on an entire social ecosystem—I think even many of the books aimed at kids provide something more worthwhile. This novel sets out to be about so much: friendship, marriage, grief, politics, and that adults don’t actually know anything even though they pretend to. In attempting that ambitious task, it fails to provide meaningful insights on any of those fronts.
The novel is set in the Nixon era, though you wouldn’t know it if not for some throwaway lines about what a hack he is. Miggy’s parents are would-be hippies but are circumstantially suburban, and Silver tells us they’re uncomfortable with that: “They were only playacting these conventions of suburban life” after spending their youth masquerading as authentically unconventional. They pride themselves on the supposed irony of being draft dodger pot smokers who now live in the suburbs, amongst Republicans; but this information is cheap when provided only by the narrator, and rarely in scene or dialogue.
We are provided with some allusions to events that took place before the story begins that are intriguing but roughly glossed over. One that stuck with me was the mention of Miggy’s grandmother having breast cancer that she “had known about but ignored”—that line in itself is a story, so why include it without saying more? It’s a frustrating nod to a more fulfilling book that could’ve been. It’s also disconcerting that, in the first chapter, Silver uses the technique of capitalizing certain words and sentences as if to say they are especially meaningful (“…when Ellen comes to play, Miggy can get away with So Much More”), but then throws that trick to the wayside. Small as this may be, it chips away at the novel’s coherency.
Then there’s Celeste, Ellen’s mother, a woman prone to sadness, experiencing serious postpartum depression after giving birth to Ellen’s younger brother. Celeste is apparently extremely gorgeous, with a loving but static husband. Her mother died by suicide when she was young, which forced Celeste to grow up too quickly, and obviously traumatized her deeply. Silver details some scenes between Celeste and Ellen that work well: they both treasure their time together, but Ellen is insecure about holding her mother’s attention. At one point, they’re savoring some of this alone time in the car, but Ellen regretfully ends it because she needs to use the bathroom, and is worried she wasted the very fleeting time her mother gives her. Silver lays the groundwork for more scenes between the fascinating and tragic mother and daughter duo, but they never come to fruition.
Though this book is about childhood friendship on some level, it’s actually more about the limits of what parents can do to protect their children, and how adults are just as likely as kids to feel completely hopeless and out of control. The novel really pays more attention to the adults in the story than the kids, to the point where the children often feel like caricatures of girls engaging in immature sadomasochism. It’s not out of line with how kids sometimes act, but is also a pretty shallow representation of this behavior and is curtailed by the parents’ involvement.
The real problem with The Mysteries happens at its climax, which is so meaningless it destroys any hope for a satisfying ending. I hoped that The Mysteries wouldn’t fall prey to the formula it set from the jump, but it did, and a little more than halfway through the story, as we are warned on the back cover, “tragedy strikes.”
One day, as Miggy’s family is dropping Ellen off at home after a chaotic outing, Ellen is hit by a car and dies, as everyone, including her mother, watches. It feels like a cop-out, and a cruel one at that. There was no reason for this sweet girl to die, to have her entire, short life dominated by insecurity and pain, to inflict further trauma upon her mother, to whom this is one of many horrific tragedies that she’s had to endure.
After this tragic climax, everyone falls apart—especially Miggy, who can’t wrap her mind around what happened, and seems to become purposefully indignant and impossible to reach, even for a child. Everyone in the book struggles with guilt, because they all were somewhat responsible for what occurred, but the book never delves far enough into these feelings, only skimming the surface of a situation that has the potential to be fodder for deep character studies.
I don’t mean to suggest that novels should only show sunny skies and happy families. In real life, sad and horrific things happen to people all the time, for no reason, even if they’ve already been through it enough. This year of constant death has made that clear. But when you’re the author of a novel, your plot decisions can hold more significance than a real-life freak accident might. There isn’t enough evidence in The Mysteries that Ellen’s death was meaningful in any real way, so it feels like an unearned piece of drama. If you want to write a book about a tragedy, you have the tools to really dig into it, to make it mean something that it wouldn’t in real life, or to make its lack of meaning mean something. You can play a little bit, mess with your reader’s sense of the world. That’s what makes reading fiction so interesting—and so disappointing, when it falls flat.
Ultimately, The Mysteries lacks imagination, because the author doesn’t trust her audience would understand anything that isn’t explicitly laid out. Ellen’s death is so on the nose for what her character was destined for because her innocence and martyrdom needs to be hammered home, lest the readers didn’t understand. With more trust between the author and her readers, The Mysteries could be strong and poignant. Without it, it consists of over-explanatory exposition that ends in disconnection and disappointment.
by Marisa Silver
Published May 04th, 2021