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After months of agonizing over whether to become a teacher or a doctor, I found the answer in a novel. When Ghosts of Bergen County begins, Gil and Mary Beth Ferko are paralyzed with grief over the death of their infant daughter, who was killed in a hit-and-run crash two years earlier. But after Gil reconnects with a former high school classmate, Jen, the couple begins to move on. Jen introduces him to heroin and her father, a retired physician who writes books about ghosts. Dr. Yoder’s vocation surprises Gil, who thinks his job would be “something bookish. Not an ER doctor.” When I read that line I froze. It was fate, I thought. There was a reason why I had been given this book to review; I wasn’t meant to be a doctor after all.
This experience exemplified an idea that drives Bethesda-based Dana Cann’s debut mystery novel: Humans are constantly looking for clues that explain why the bad things in our lives have happened and instruct us how to go on living. But are these really clues, or just coincidences? “The beauty of fate is there’s no way to prove or disprove it. It just is,” Gil tells Jen, as he explains his theory that the car crash was fate. But not the driver leaving the scene—that was a decision, he says, and that’s what torments Mary Beth and prevents her from being able to move on.
Jen empathizes with the driver. Eight years before, she walked away when a man she was with fell—accidentally or intentionally, no one knows—from a building and died. She is still tormented by her decision to flee the scene, and when she hears the Ferkos’ story, she sees a connection. “Not fate, like Ferko suggested, which connoted an accident, a fatal accident (wasn’t fatal a derivation of fate?), an unpreventable fatal accident. No, she thought, fate had no room for reason, for purpose, for higher purpose.”
It turns out that Jen is right. But as the connections between the two stories start to surface, the novel starts to lose its grip on the reader. While the first half raises intriguing questions—exploring the human tendency to tell ourselves stories to cope with our misfortunes and how we are haunted by our complicity—the second half provides a rigid answer to the question of whether things happen for a reason. As Gil says, the beauty of fate is in its inability to be proven, but as each piece of the story falls neatly into place, Cann seems to be making the case for fate and with it, the beauty of the story fades.
While the larger plot gives way to predictability, Cann’s writing on a sentence level is consistently appealing in its clarity and directness. Cann writes with particular poignancy on grief and the irrational things it compels people to do: “Sometimes Mary Beth sat on the floor next to the toy chest, opened the lid and retrieved the stuffed caterpillar, squeezed the soft sections and held them to her nose and breathed. Once, she put the rings in her mouth and scraped them against the hard enamel of her teeth. She put her tongue to them and tasted them.” For Gil, heroin speeds up the hands of the “clock” that is grief: “Manhattan now tasted like dope. He felt its tug each time he board the PATH in Hoboken and the brake was released and the train began to coast into the tunnel that took him under the Hudson. Then the train accelerated, as though the drug itself were the engine turning the wheels, along with the benign and the mundane—electricity, coal, job, paycheck.” Descriptions of heroin throughout the book leave the reader feeling euphoric.
While the connections between the characters’ pasts are too tidy to be convincing, and are therefore not compelling, the process by which the characters discover their connections points to an interesting idea: It may be impossible to know whether or not something is fate, but sometimes believing in fate can be a way for the truth to surface. I knew all along that books were my medicine. The idea of fate just helped me to accept that.
Cann reads April 30 at 6 p.m. at Politics & Prose and May 6 at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble Bethesda.