7 Books With Characters Who Go Against Their Astrological Signs
Sometimes the paths that we’ve been pre-destined for aren’t the ones we end up taking
When my father was born there were three astrologers in attendance at the hospital in Kolkata. You could never be too sure, my grandfather said, about who had the most accurate wristwatch, and the good astrologers care about time, deeply. That is their life’s work, of course, to understand when and where the planets move and to extract from these orbits the history of our lives.
But sometimes the paths that we’ve been pre-destined for aren’t the ones we end up taking. We fall outside of the pages of the divine ephemeris, groove away from destinies that have been handed to us. I’m especially drawn to stories where characters are lurched off their well-trodden paths. Expectations are vanquished: the unfamiliar is where we see who they really are.
In my story collection A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness, I explore these rifts in our astrology through characters who through choice or chance transition from their birth families to cultivate chosen families, finding new ways to make it in the margins. I think the short story is a powerful technology for anyone trying to figure out what it means to live a good life, and for any of us for whom that good life is beyond usual boundaries, these story collections illumine possible paths. They reshape personal histories. They welcome dreamers and misfits. They allow us to leave our charts behind.
In the Country by Mia Alvar
Alvar understands home isn’t a singular place but rather a constellation that we carry with us. The conflicts in these stories—for instance in the first story, Kontrabida, where a young pharmacist returns to the Philippines to visit his sick, dying father and his mother who may have dark motives—explore moral ambiguities. They defy easy categorizations and allow readers to empathize with characters whose actions might be described as more ethically gray than good. This is something I love about the story form: the speed at which we’re thrown into the woods, as it were, kept away from any surefootedness about what’s wrong or right.
Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino
The primary instrument writers have is the sentence. Books are built on these, of course, and writers decide the rhythm of each line, forecast how the words might land in the reader’s brain. Reading Marie-Helene Bertino’s sentences is like watching the world through an alien mirror, with the distortion that’s provided taking us closer to the heart of the heart of the matter. Take a fictionalized Bob Dylan for example, who visits a family for Thanksgiving, and who the narrator eventually describes as, “He was supposed to create some sort of lather, and he barely summoned enough energy to behead a pile of string beans.” What is beheaded in these stories are ordinary expectations and what is revealed is worthy of many rooms of family albums.
The Unknown Errors of Our Lives by Chitra Banerjee Divakurni
Few places remain the same from our youth, and when I visit Kolkata, the city of my birth, I’m especially attuned to the ways in which the old guard rubs up against the new, and in her second collection of short stories I love how Divakurni describes these transitions between the traditional and the modern, and the city beneath the city. In “Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter,” a widow now living in Sunnyvale struggles to provide a glowing review of her new life in America. What she can offer in the confusion of new devices and disappointing grandchildren is a feeling of living outside the margins that I think many of us have felt in those particularly challenging and liminal moments of our lives.
The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín
I’ve always admired how Colm Tóibín refuses to shy away from the most difficult parts of family life. With candor and compassion, he’ll examine choices from years past that may have left characters doomed to their loneliness. Somehow, memory becomes evidence that the heart exists, that it does what it does despite a lifetime of missed consolations. Perhaps my favorite story, and one I return to every few years, is “The Pearl Fishers.” In it our narrator has a meeting with a lover from his past and his lover’s new wife. We explore the complexity of this situation as we do the modern Irish moment, and what it means to be a gay man with the “true Catholic church” casting its judgments.
A Good Place for the Night by Savyon Liebrecht, translated by Sondra Silverstein
In Savyon Liebrecht’s sixth story collection, translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverstein, characters find themselves away from home: in America, Munich, Hiroshima, Jerusalem, even a futuristic world blighted by nuclear catastrophe. Throughout, Liebrecht explores the sanctity and relevance of place because as those who’ve crossed borders know, nothing holds us more in our orbits than our relationship to what we consider home. These are unsettling stories that ask us to question where and how we find comfort and love. Still, there is always warmth, even in the title story with its apocalyptic landscape where new family bonds are stubbornly formed.
The Boat by Nam Le
What does it mean to write an “ethnic story?” the narrator of Nam Le’s opening story wonders. In fiction, we’re often working to make the familiar unfamiliar, which poses an interesting challenge for writers whose heritage takes them outside of a “conventional” literary milieu. Returning to my starting metaphor, perhaps our astrology is in part a function of our cultural capital, of what is venerated by the world we live in. Except, all the other worlds deserve their due, and Le explores them with a sense of adventure. Columbian assassins, Hiroshima orphans, all get their time on the page, as does the desperately real and the gritty, a thirteen-day boat journey across an unforgiving ocean.
For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander
I first came across Nathan Englander’s first short story collection in a dusty bookshop in Jerusalem. So many who come to the holy city are looking for an altogether different sort of life, a reclamation of a spiritual or religious self, which the hallowed old city walls might provide, but in this seminal collection Englander’s characters are often fighting against the social walls that limit their search for love and expression. They are striking out, miserably, honorably, always evoking a great empathy, to make their own life within or outside orthodoxy. No astrologer could predict the turns of fate these characters face and that’s some of the joy of these stories.