Marisa Silver’s The Mysteries is a perceptive novel about female friendship. Set in St. Louis in the early 1970s, it revolves around Miggy, who is a force: a seven-year-old who tests every boundary set for her. She delights in the disquieting nature of language; she demands immediate answers to her questions about everything. Miggy’s best friend, Ellen, is peaceable and demure. She happily submits to Miggy, and Silver inhabits each girl’s psyche by using a gently shifting third person that demonstrates the dynamics of their friendship as well as their mutual curiosity.
Silver also expands The Mysteries to encompass the perspectives of Miggy’s and Ellen’s parents, which allows her to consider difficult questions about pain and parenthood. Miggy’s mother, Jean, is a ballet teacher intent on helping her wild child interpret the world. Her dad, Julian, is a loving if often perplexed parent who has sunk everything into the family hardware store, which is beginning to fail.
Marisa Silver joins Alta Live.
Ellen’s parents are Celeste, who can’t escape a genetic predisposition for depression, and William, the man who tries to save her. There are secrets, and everyone is falling short in some way. For Silver, form mirrors meaning. As her narrative unfolds, we’re granted limited access to each character’s worries. When a devastating accident affects both families, it’s made even more tragic by the distance that exists between the four adults.
The danger of fictionalizing a child’s voice is that it can come off as contrivance. But the language Silver uses for Miggy and Ellen resists that trap; each girl’s chapters are written with a keen ear for the voices of children, filtered through the syntactic elegance that marks the entire book. In this way, language becomes character; Miggy and Ellen, as well as their parents, are embodied as much by what they think as by what happens to them.
When Miggy gets into trouble, she imagines “the exquisite, stomach-knotted, Waiting to See If She’s Gonna Get It.” She tears a map “into pieces, softened with her spit, and swallowed so that the world was inside her body and her body was the whole world of the world.” Miggy lives on the border between upheaval and attention, and Silver writes with a vivid memory for the things of childhood. Miggy is also a keeper of secret things, collecting them in her room. Silver establishes her as a thoughtful figure, and that pays off when she has to grow up quickly.
Throughout The Mysteries, Silver raises questions about traditional gender roles, parenting styles, and mental health by examining the myriad ways adults respond to children as they test the limits of their world. Celeste is deeply troubled following the birth of her second child. Ellen forms her own personality in deference to others, which William observes.
Ellen has become tentative and watchful in a way that makes him cautious around her, worried that he might say something that will upset her. She’s weirdly attentive, always taking the temperature of a situation and then adjusting her behavior by degrees. She’ll apologize if he mentions they are out of orange juice or if he complains about the heat, as if the faults of the world are hers.
Julian, meanwhile, feels like a failure, which colors his interactions with Miggy. At the same time, he continues to represent for his daughter a sort of emotional center: “Miggy’s sense of security and his of purpose are predicated on the idea that he can right the wrongs that befall her,” Jean reflects. Through these two girls who look to their fathers for reassurance, Silver highlights what Celeste lacks: “She’s never learned to trust the idea of family.” As the novel progresses, the family members’ notions of safety and their reliance on one another are tested. Even loved ones, Silver wants us to recognize, are unknowns.
The Mysteries reveals that adulthood comes at the cost of a belief in dreams, satisfaction, or even an imagined future. Miggy is a case in point. Initially, she believes in things that seem somehow magical: monsters, mysteries, true security. As she comes to accept the harshness of reality, she has to let this go. “The gap between what she expected and what is actually happening destabilizes her,” Silver writes, and the destabilizing is necessary because “things will happen to her in her life. They will happen and keep on happening.” Through Jean and Celeste, Silver delineates the ways in which destabilization continues—painfully—into adulthood. Like children, adults have to find a way to get along.
As in life, there are tensions in The Mysteries—between youth and adulthood, expectation and reality, the known world and that which lies just out of reach. Knowledge may be a necessary burden, but it comes with change, and pain.•