The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein is the story of a family haunted by a long-ago pact with the fairies. Like all fairy tales, it’s also a story about human problems, so it’s easy to find yourself within these pages even if mysterious beings have never cleaned your house in the middle of the night.
In 1971, Berkeley students Will and Ben go to visit the eccentric Feierabend family who live in a rambling house in Napa Valley. Ben is dating the eldest Feierabend sister, Maddie, and wants to introduce Will to the second sister, Livvy. Will thinks Ben’s trying to palm off a less attractive “pale shadow” of Maddie, but when he meets Livvy, he’s smitten. As their relationship grows, so do the mysteries surrounding the Feierabends — and then something terrible occurs and Will must outwit the fairies to bring back his love.
Goldstein invents a long-lost Grimm fairy tale that serves as the trail of breadcrumbs to guide Will’s steps. But even if Will does win his way to Livvy, he’ll need to be careful; fairies can be tricky about the fine print. The climax of the story is the kind I like best; it forces the characters to look within themselves and decide what they value most.
The prose is spare and the plot zips along quickly, sometimes skipping years if not much is happening during that time, and the result is a short novel of 240 pages. This is the kind of story that could have sustained a more ornate writing style and a slower, saga-like pace. (Indeed, many of the books I want to compare it to in terms of mood — older books like Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, newer books like Freda Warrington’s Aetherial Tales — are far longer.) The characterization suffers a bit from this brevity, but the plot is complete and self-contained. On the whole, I’m satisfied with the story itself but would have loved to spend more time in the setting — particularly the Feierabend house itself, with its mishmash of architectural styles, its china cabinet full of books, and its forbidden ballroom.
The Uncertain Places has a wistful feel to it. As the story of Will and his entanglement with the Feierabends progresses, it’s clear that magic is gradually slipping out of the characters’ lives. Though at least some of this happens for supernatural reasons, the losses are the kinds of losses we all understand. Lost youth. Lost idealism. The end of an optimistic time in history. That golden circle of friends that so many of us have around college age, and that so many of us lose.
For readers who enjoy the quieter style of contemporary fantasy, I recommend The Uncertain Places. It’s a quick read, but a memorable one. I will definitely be looking up Goldstein’s earlier books.