Star-crossed lovers usually aren’t, really. More often it’s family or other interested parties that make connection difficult — even when these outsiders mean to do the opposite. That’s certainly the case in Lydia Netzer’s “How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky,” although in this winning second novel, the answer may genuinely lie in the heavens.
Irene Sparks and George Dermont were not born to be lovers. They were raised to be — part of a plot dreamed up by their mothers back when the two were girlhood best friends.
Irene is a pragmatist who has avoided intimacy for all of her 29 years. George is a dreamer, an easygoing soul whose visions of gods and goddesses threaten to interfere with his everyday life.
Both are damaged, in part because of the falling out between their mothers 23 years before. Both are also astronomers, who meet as adults when an important discovery by Irene brings her to the Toledo Institute of Astronomy, where George had been the rising star.
Although the now-eclipsed dreamer immediately latches onto the mousey newcomer as a soulmate, she is initially more than hesitant. She is hostile, afraid to face the terror that haunts her repetitive and lucid dreams. When she uncovers the maternal plot, she is even more resistant to the attraction they both feel. A stickler for control, Irene rejects anything to do with the prenatal setup.
The roots of Irene’s stubbornness lie in her family history, a complicated and tragic affair that culminates on the night of her scientific breakthrough, which is also the night of her mother’s death. This back story is interspersed in George and Irene’s saga, as they come together and face their separate existential crises.
The narratives make the most of the available metaphors: Irene’s research, for example, involves black holes, which she may have managed to create in the lab. George, on the other hand, searches for parallel universes — twinned souls. Even the basic concept of lovers who are astronomers, people who look for the science behind the beauty of the night sky, mirrors their romance, as does the girlish plot that may or may not have brought them together.
Netzer’s often impressionistic writing swings from science to the flesh in broad, fearless sweeps that incorporate astrophysics, mythology, and characters who are true to themselves, even when those selves are maddening.
This can be both colloquial and funny, as when the two consummate their relationship, and Irene experiences it all in terms of a mathematical concept, a Tusi couple: “a vision before her face of a circle and a point and a line, and the way they moved together, up and down, back and forth.”
Beneath the humor is a profound, nuanced portrait of a damaged psyche. Irene’s dreams, relayed in first person, recapitulate the trauma she has never faced, a horrible fire caused by — and ultimately standing in for — her mother’s alcoholism.
This is her own personal black hole. “She keeps making words come out of her mouth that I cannot hear,” she dreams, visualizing George’s mother as a truth-telling monster. “She is shrieking. She is calling to me. She is saying STOP STOP or she is saying YOU ARE FILTH ANYWAY SO JUST GO AND BE SAD or she is saying YOUR MOTHER IS YOU.”
The tense confusion in this painful passage gets at an emotional truth that a more literal rendering might miss.
Such passages elevate this novel above a mere romance, giving us two flawed souls whose love is as quarky as it is quirky. They make this summer valentine bittersweet, showing us the redemptive power of love as a truly cosmic force.
Clea Simon, author of 15 mysteries, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.