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“Everything Happens as It Does,” by Bulgarian writer Albena Stambolova, is a slip of a novel that chronicles the ways in which the lives of seven characters intersect and impact one another. Very little occurs in the way of concrete plot, but the text announces its sticking point in its title: everything that happens is fated to happen. Stambolova proves herself capable of masterful prose, and she puts forth an assemblage of compelling characters whose strangeness arrests the reader from the outset. But ultimately, the fatalist theme of the novel is its undoing. Characters who prove to be static, coupled with a tone that is simply too emotionally detached to be engaging, prevent “Everything Happens as It Does” from living up to its author’s talents.
The novel gets off to a fantastic start with introductory vignettes that paint vivid pictures of the men and women whose stories it will trace. Boris is a diffident prodigy who identifies more with bees than with humans. The son of a beekeeper, “[Boris] knew from the very beginning that honey belonged to the bees, and his father rattling the drawers now seemed silly.” On the day of his baptism, he is “overcome by panic at the prospect of this mystery in which he was to become the main protagonist.” Maria, whom Boris eventually weds, is similarly intriguing. A modern-day succubus, she is knowable only through the effect she has on the husbands and children she chews up and spits out. Stambolova writes of her first husband, “Before meeting Maria, he had been simply Philip, a doctor, a pathologist. He had been able to describe himself in a word. After meeting Maria, his center of gravity was transposed out of his body, and in the beginning this gave him strength. Strength that Maria absorbed.” Maria and Philip’s twin children Valentin and Margarita are also compelling. Physically they appear almost identical, but they are profoundly dissimilar beneath the surface. Margarita, like Boris, declines to engage with the world around her. There is a wonderful, haunting passage where Valentin tries in vain to bring his sister down to earth; all the while, she is imagining that she is a spider. Stambolova writes, “Valentin would be…furiously shaking what he believed to be Margarita, and she would be swinging on the filaments up here, laughing.”
The novel also benefits from Stambolova’s knack for distilling complicated ideas into pithy, heartbreaking passages. When Valentin reflects on his relationship with his estranged daughter, the result is stunning: “His daughter’s age, the years, like the beginnings of a bridge extending from one side of the river, but with no support, like a floating arch over the water, and every Christmas he was adding to it. But what was he adding? Length? He was just making it more fragile.” Boris’s take on domesticity is similarly wrenching: “What human beings considered rational was miles away from the living economy of bees. Between the act of pressing the washing machine button and the mood of the person pressing it there was an entire universe of folly that people called their lives.”
The magnetism of Stambolova’s characterizations and prose cannot be gainsaid. Unfortunately, the substance that sucks the reader in proves to be literary quicksand. Stambolova’s vivid introductions to her characters set in the reader high expectations for their growth over the course of the novel. But it is remarkable how little Stambolova’s creations develop. The characters rely on the currents of fate to float them where they’re meant to wash up; powerlessness to alter their paths seems to have been transmuted into a powerlessness to change themselves. Boris, Maria, Margarita, Valentin, and the other main characters are fascinating, but in the same exact ways from beginning to end. Boris is as bee-loving and reclusive on the story’s final page as on the first. The dichotomy between Margarita and Valentin is unchallenged. Maria remains absolutely inscrutable. A cast of characters to whom agency is anathema might have been tolerable, if they developed internally as they plodded toward foregone conclusions. But the lack of payoff makes the novel itself feel useless.
The efficacy of “Everything Happens as It Does” is further undermined by the detached, abstract tone Stambolova frequently adopts. Her prose is gorgeous, but like so many of her characters, exists on a plane utterly divorced from reality. The novel opens as follows: “This story considers itself the story of everyone. I don’t know if this is true. You will be the one to decide. This story is neither funny, nor sad. It is simply a story that takes place somewhere on the border between the world we know and the world we are no longer very sure about.” A few paragraphs in this vein would have been intriguing; in abundance, they become oppressive. Wading through “Everything Happens as It Does” is akin to trudging through the aforementioned quicksand with a curtain over one’s face. What little resolution Stambolova doles out at the conclusion of the novel does indeed feel inevitable. But its elegance is undermined by the lethargy into which the reader has been sunk by the text’s refusal to occasionally touch down in recognizable, realistic description.
“Everything Happens as It Does” frustrates more than it entertains, and perplexes more than it illuminates. Keep an eye out for future efforts by Stambolova, but for the time being a rain check is advised.
—Staff writer Emma R. Adler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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