‘Shine Shine Shine,” Lydia Netzer’s bestselling debut novel about an astronaut in orbit and his wife left on Earth, garnered praise for its original concept and idiosyncratic characters. In Netzer’s new book, “How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky,” two astronomers fall in love. These characters never venture among the celestial objects they study. If anything, though, their story is even less pedestrian than its predecessor.
Irene Sparks and George Dermont are “twin souls,” born at the same moment and raised to fall in love. After Irene’s mother, Bernice, falls down the stairs to her death, Irene returns to her hometown to construct a supercollider at the Toledo Institute of Astronomy. Her arrival displaces George from the lab where he is researching the Gateway of God, a plane on which he believes the universe bends. Beyond their profession, the two seem to have little in common. Irene is pragmatic, acerbic and cynical. George is dreamy, charismatic and trusting.
But Irene and George also share a forgotten past. The details — their mothers’ engineering of their births and the tragedy that derailed the women’s friendship — unfold gradually through flashbacks. It is a testament to Netzer’s narrative prowess that the back story, far from slowing the novel’s pace, creates a sense of urgency. Like a mystery writer, Netzer assembles clues that help us piece together the circumstances leading to the present. The downside is that once we know what did happen, there is only the question of what will happen to keep us in suspense.
Happily, Netzer saves some surprises for the novel’s final pages.
Plotting is hardly the only tool in her arsenal. With a title that reads like a line of verse, the novel’s mesmerizing cadence is little surprise. There is a deeper poetry to Netzer’s writing, as well. Words carry multiple meanings and evoke complex themes. A fall is a physical collapse and an emotional surrender. Collisions occur between charged particles and between souls.
The novel explores the inevitability of such collisions, and whether inevitability makes them less meaningful. At times, Netzer’s bizarre supporting characters distract us from the exploration. More often, though, her characters and situations paradoxically reflect our commonplace humanity. When literal cherubs sing as George first meets Irene, the angels’ presence is plausible partly because we’ve all felt them, or at least heard of them in a Johnny Mercer lyric.
Ultimately, Netzer exposes the magic in the mundane, the enchantment of the earthbound. Her characters, like us, share space with the stars. Perhaps the most breathtaking revelation of Netzer’s novel is that the world is more dazzling on our side of the atmosphere.
Kim Kankiewicz is co-founder of Eastside Writes, a community-based literary arts organization near Seattle. She’s at www. kimkankiewicz.com.