I’m extremely picky with contemporary fiction. Books about everyday people and their everyday lives, problems, and relationships just don’t appeal to me. The Reluctant Fortune-Teller, however, is a charming and magical exception that doesn’t focus on romance.
Norbert Zelenka is a quiet and unassuming man who lives alone with his dog. For most of his life, he put the needs of others above his own, and now he’s really paying for it. Three acquaintances notice his financial struggle and decide to visit him one day, intending to help him find a more lucrative job (but one of them, of course, has other plans in mind). Because of Norbert’s uncanny observational skills, he’s presented with a new career idea that the tourist-attracting town would especially love: fortune-telling.
I wasn’t expecting this book to depict fortune-telling in such a productive way. It shows how divination can be a creative therapy. Norbert struggles with imposter syndrome. He wants to help others with a niche that he never thought he’d enjoy, yet he doesn’t want to cheat anyone out of their money.
Norbert was never interested in mysticism. He didn’t flat-out reject it, but he preferred the objective reality of math and numbers. As he reads fortunes that turn out to be truer than true, he swings back and forth between thinking it’s all psychology and suspecting there might be something more.
Norbert isn’t the only POV in this book, though. Here and there we see through the eyes of the acquaintances—Carlotta, Margaret, and Birdie; Hope, the woman in charge of the Good Fortune Cafe; and Summer Moon, Carlotta’s granddaughter.
Summer Moon’s story is the most intense. She’s been dealing with guilt for almost a decade. I don’t want to spoil anything, but just as a heads up, a flashback reveals that, as a teenager, she was dating a much older man and got drunk with him. I was afraid it would descend into something serious, but thankfully it didn’t.
I didn’t have a problem with how any character was written. They were all interesting and complex in their own ways, even the narcissistic and manipulative Carlotta. At times, though, the dialog was a little unrealistic because nobody paused or stopped to breathe.
I was disappointed in Norbert’s conclusion of our purpose in life as humans. He thinks that being kind is the best we can do and disagrees with Carlotta, who insists we can be more (in an ambitious rather than humanitarian sense, though).
When it comes to truth, sometimes kindness isn’t enough. Truth is important, and sometimes we have to be relentless in our search to not only benefit ourselves, but also future generations. Medicine and technology weren’t invented as a result of being kind. Cultural appropriation wasn’t termed as a result of being kind, but we need it to understand that some things are not available to people outside of closed cultures.
Why would I mention cultural appropriation, exactly? Well, there’s a New Age group in this book that, unsurprisingly, incorporates smudging, which generally isn’t up for grabs. I said “generally” because I’m aware that some indigenous people are okay with cultural exchange, but you should buy white sage from them instead of a non-indigenous person or company. As for the other cultural practices mentioned in this book, they’re in more of a gray area, but this is all besides the point.
The book seems to promote the idea that we should tolerate everything if it helps people cope. Not everyone can help what they feel drawn to, but we should all attempt to understand why some actions and beliefs can be harmful.
I did appreciate the book’s almost satirical, yet sincere depiction of the New Age group. They weren’t as enlightened as they thought they were. As someone with experience, these people really do come in all unfavorable personalities. But I was confused about something unrelated.
Norbert was told (not by them) that monetizing a spiritual gift would make it disappear, but the New Agers have no problem charging people hundreds of dollars for their services. I suppose the difference between the TV psychics and the New Age group, like Norbert, is that the latter is apparently genuine about helping others. At least, that’s what the book appears to be saying, unless the little fun being poked at the group is a poke at their quackery?
Of course, these little letdowns didn’t ruin my overall enjoyment of a book so lovely and unique. At the end of it, there’s a short guide to reading the cards like Norbert. All you need is a deck of playing cards, nothing fancy. The first page of every chapter, too, has a card that foretells major events in a few sentences or less. Reading really is more fun when books are creative like this.
4 full moons out of 5