In which Sarah reviews The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss
“This story is for all the slightly broken people out there. I am one of you. You are not alone. You are all beautiful to me.” -Patrick Rothfuss
I have to confess that when I started writing this review, I wasn't entirely sure how to approach this story. I loved it and...what else? I went on and on to my husband about how much I liked it. But how did I want to go about reviewing it? It took me a while, but I finally pinpointed exactly what it was about this story that spoke to me. So here we go. (Also, I'm going to call it a "story," even though it's technically a novella. "Novella" just sounds tinny and I don't like it.)
I first have to praise how beautifully this story is written. I will be the first to admit that I tend to read things too quickly. Perhaps it's because I knew what to expect from this story, but it compelled me to read slowly. I got the sense that Rothfuss pored over his word choice, replacing and reworking until he got it right, much like Auri does with her possessions. Every writer does this, of course, but in this story I had the impression that every word was carefully, meticulously chosen, and for that reason I slowed down to take in the exact meaning or image that Rothfuss is conveying.
Now, understand that this story is very different from what I usually read. I love action-adventure novels. Love them. And there is not a lot of action in this story. But I still loved it. In this story, we walk with Auri through a few small episodes of her life, and I was okay with that. I asked myself multiple times why my inner action-adventure reader was okay with this.
To start answering that question, I have to begin with this question: what is this story about?
To give a quick summary, this story is about Auri, a mysterious character from Rothfuss's other two novels, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear. It covers seven days of Auri's life in between visits from Kvothe, the main character of the other two novels. This is the "he" to whom Auri refers throughout the story. She lives alone, and almost no one knows about her existence. There is no dialogue and no interactions with other characters (in this story, at least). Her days are marked by the small events that make up the quiet existence of her life.
This story has no main plot. There are certain events with which the story is preoccupied: Auri finds a metal gear with one broken tooth and tries to find the perfect place for it; she searches for the perfect gift for Kvothe before he comes to visit again; a rodent eats all of Auri's soap and she has to make some more.
But I don't know that these things are the plot. I don't know that you could say this is what the story is about. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this. And here is my theory: I think that this story is really about joy. Joy in the midst of brokenness.
Consider Auri’s life: she lives in the Underthing, the service corridors, tunnels, and abandoned rooms underneath the university of magic, and most of her possessions are things she has scavenged from her exploration of the tunnel system, things that have been left behind or forgotten. She has very little to eat: one of her meals toward the end of the story consists of boiled peas in water that she calls a soup. That's it. Yet she calls it "lovely soup" (126). There are many of these tiny moments throughout the story in which Auri savors small things that most of us would consider inadequate, yet she rejoices and never considers herself in want of anything.
That brings me back to the big question. What is this story about? I want to highlight two passages that I believe capture the essence of this story.
The first of these passages occurs during the soap-making scene. She sees the pomace from which she is making her soap, and the sight of it triggers (what I believe to be) repressed memories that bring her emotions crashing down around her:
“She felt the panic rising in her then. She knew. She knew how quickly things could break. You did the things you could. You tended to the world for the world's sake. You hoped you would be safe. But still she knew. It could come crashing down and there was nothing you could do. And yes, she knew she wasn't right. She knew her everything was canted wrong. She knew her head was all unkilter. She knew she wasn't true inside. She knew” (115).
Up to this point in the story, we know that Auri is not quite mentally stable. She displays obsessive compulsive tendencies with her possessions, constantly rearranging and organizing them. It's unclear whether this unbalance is a result of her magical abilities or a result of some traumatic event from her past. But this is the first time that we are sure that Auri is aware that she isn’t “right.”
The second passage that I want to highlight comes shortly after the soap is finished. She has calmed herself by holding on to Fulcrum, the metal gear that she finds at the beginning of the story. A short time later, she trips and drops Fulcrum, and it breaks into three pieces. I was worried what this would do to her fragile mental state. But I didn’t expect this reaction:
"Slowly Auri's face broke too. It broke into a grin so wide you'd think she ate the moon. Oh yes. Fulcrum had broken, but that wasn't wrong. Eggs break. Horses break. Waves break. Of course he broke. How else could someone so all certain-centered let his perfect answers out into the world? Some things were just too true to stay" (133).
This is the passage that I think encapsulates this story. The object that has brought her comfort in the midst of her darkness has just broken into pieces, but instead of mourning, she rejoices. Fulcrum is actually more beautiful to her now that it is broken. She sees the good and necessary things that come out of breaking something. The insight that she gains from Fulcrum breaking is not even for her: it gives her an idea of the perfect gift for Kvothe, which she has been searching for. This girl, who has next to nothing, is preoccupied with finding the perfect gift for someone else. And what does she decide is the best gift?
"And just like that, she had a gift for him: a safe place he could stay…He would need a place someday, and it was here all ready for him. Someday he would come, and she would tend to him. Someday he would be the one all eggshell hollow empty in the dark" (147).
Her best gift for him is a place of safety and comfort. She finds a blanket and arranges a space for him to sleep with some small objects on a nearby shelf. Notice that within her own well-kept solitude, she creates a space that he can call his own and partake of the safety that she has found in the Underthing. This is significant, because throughout the story, we're given hints that Auri has withdrawn from the world because of some traumatic event in her past. She had to find and create her own place of safety, so it is fitting that the best gift she can give Kvothe is a safe place that he doesn’t have to create for himself.
All of these good things come from a place of brokenness. Auri has a dark past that has driven her into solitude, but she takes joy in simple things and appreciates the things that she does have. It is the brokenness of her treasured Fulcrum that leads her to the perfect gift for Kvothe, and from the darkness of her past she knows that Kvothe will one day need a safe place.
And that is why I loved this story. There is darkness and brokenness, but there is also joy and purpose that grow out of, and in spite of, those things.
"Auri spun about three times. She smelled the air. She grinned. All around her everything was proper true. She knew exactly where she was. She was exactly where she ought to be" (147).
Rothfuss, Patrick. The Slow Regard of Silent Things. New York: DAW Books, 2014.