by Laura Maylene Walter
Publisher: Dutton Books
Publication Date: March 18, 2021
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
An exploration of fate and female agency in a world very similar to our own--except that the markings on women's bodies reveal the future. A piercing indictment of rape culture, a read about what happens when women are objectified and stripped of choice--and what happens when they fight back.
Celeste Morton has eagerly awaited her passage to adulthood. Like every girl, she was born with a set of childhood markings--the freckles, moles, and birthmarks on her body that foretell her future and that of those around her--and with puberty will come a new set of predictions that will solidify her fate. The possibilities are tantalizing enough to outweigh the worry that the future she dreams of won't be the one she's fated to have and the fear of her "changeling period" the time when women are nearly irresistible to men and the risk of abduction is rife.
Celeste's beloved brother, Miles, is equally anticipating her transition to adulthood. As a skilled interpreter of the future, a field that typically excludes men, Miles considers Celeste his practice ground--and the only clue to what his own future will bring. But when Celeste changes, she learns a devastating secret about Miles's fate: a secret that could destroy her family, a secret she will do anything to keep. Yet Celeste isn't the only one keeping secrets, and when the lies of brother and sister collide, it leads to a tragedy that will irrevocably change Celeste's fate, set her on a path to fight against the inherent misogyny of fortune-telling, and urge her to create a future that is truly her own.
Content warnings: View Spoiler »rampant patriarchy (a la Handmaid’s Tale), misogyny, rape (on-page), abduction, assault, victim-blaming and shaming, alcohol, drug abuse (fictional drug) « Hide Spoiler
I was intrigued by this book’s blurb, and went in knowing that it was a dystopian novel that dealt with rape culture and the patriarchy. Unfortunately, this book didn’t work out that well for me.
The book is set in a dystopian culture where the freckles on women’s bodies foretell the future: their careers, their families, down to how many children they’ll have, and also glimpses of the rest of the family’s future. They’re born with children’s markings, which, while still true, tend to be vague, and then around their fifteenth birthday they suddenly wake up with their adult markings. They also enter the changeling period, where their senses are heightened and they’re nearly irresistible to men, leading to abductions and assault. Girls who are abducted are viewed as pariahs, as obviously it was some moral failing that allowed them to be abducted, and are generally unable to attend college or pursue most careers. The book starts with Celeste as she’s anxiously awaiting her change to an adult.
Celeste and her brother Miles are nearly inseparable, or at least that’s what she thinks. Though he’s a few years older, they share the same birthday, and they practically consider each other twins. Miles is unusual in that he’s interested in being an interpreter of the future, something that’s usually reserved only for women, and his favorite person to practice on is Celeste. Besides constantly paging through the approved guide, called Mapping the Future, he also takes lessons from Julia, a licensed interpreter. While he tries to get Celeste to come with him, she’s ambivalent about the whole thing and is more interested in the workings of the human mind. But when her adult markings reveal a family tragedy, Celeste finds herself in the scary position of keeping secrets from Miles for the first time in her life. But in a society where the predictions on women’s bodies are considered family property, how long will it be before Celeste’s secret is revealed, and will it break apart their family?
“We spend too much time either imagining the future, that vast expanse of unborn possibility, or else wandering the past, the land of the dead. And yet I return there, again and again, as if watching it unfold in my memory can affect the outcome. As if the past could ever be as changeable as the future.”
The book is from Celeste’s first person POV, but as if she’s narrating it from many years in the future, with lots of “if only I had known then,” sort of asides. I like that particular bit of foreshadowing when it’s used sparingly and precisely, but it was so prevalent it interrupted the flow of the story for me. It was one of many examples of overwrought prose that bogged down the story, which already had pacing problems due to some confusing time skips.
“This is the deepest kind of truth, Celeste—what seems impossible, what we keep secret.”
We’re shown in boring detail Celeste’s “before”, and then the immediate aftermath of the event that changes her life. And then, all of a sudden, we skip several years in the future, after she’s been at the Mountain School for some time, which, it turns out, is some anti-patriarchy bastion that teaches the girls to think and see themselves as worth more than their prophecies. And that’s the Celeste we pick back up with, one who has given up on her dream of studying psychology and has instead immersed herself in interpretation, intending to go help Miles and Julia with a secret project. And the end of the book is fine, honestly, but what annoyed me is that we skipped through what was most interesting to me – that period where Celeste was deprogrammed from what she’d been raised with and taught to think for herself. What she does with that knowledge is important and empowering, but after endless pages of her day to day life, I was hoping to see more of her coming into herself.
“The whole system, the entire structure of our society, was built around protecting men instead of girls.”
And that was the disquieting thing about this book to me. Even while being ostensibly focused on Celeste and her journey, so much of the book revolves around Miles. It’s Miles’ insistence on pursuing interpretation that leads them into a sketchy situation (and wow, how quickly Celeste forgave him for that was unbelievable) and it’s his dream that they end up pursuing. Sure, he’s better than any of the other male characters in the book, but that’s a low bar. In a book about patriarchy and misogyny and rape culture, why is the male character given a pass for doing the bare minimum?
Overall, I’d give this book about 2.5 stars. It just didn’t dig deeply enough into the themes to be satisfying for me.