Review of “How To Tell Toledo From the Night Sky” by Lydia Netzer

Irene Sparks and George Dermont were born on the very same day in the same hospital in Toledo. But life sent them in different directions, and when they meet, 29 years later, each recognizes a soulmate immediately; for both of them, it is as if the universe seems somehow re-aligned.

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Both Irene and George are scientists, and as the story begins, Irene has just transferred to the (fictional) Toledo Institute of Astronomy, where George is teaching. They find they have radically different orientations toward epistemology. Irene is a strict empiricist, but George sees the gods everywhere he looks. Literally, in fact. Irene doesn’t need gods and myth to overcome the cruelty of chaos – she has math.

The Institute of Astronomy is an interesting place in that it draws astrologers as much as it draws astronomers. Both of course are interested in understanding the stars, and the disciplines, historically intertwined, are drawing together again at the Institute, which is witnessing a rebirth of the art and science of astrology:

“There is no evidence or proof of the legitimacy of any theories or principles of astrology. There is no reason to believe that stars and planets or their movement could have any influence whatsoever on the lives of human beings or the countries of the earth. Neither is there any empirical evidence to show that true love is anything but a construct created by humans to solidify a family unit based on monogamy and a strong, diverse lineage for the species. No evidence of any true god. And yet we watch the stars, we fall in love, we pray. … ”

Irene insists that there is no such thing as love. And yet, she, who has spent her life trying not to fall into the black hole of despair, starts to suspect that it is only love that keeps us from death. So what if it isn’t real? So what if there is no such thing as fate? As George says to Irene, love doesn’t have to be true to be real. There is nothing else to say about it when it happens; it’s done. But convincing Irene is another matter.

Discussion: This novel is very well written, with passages that call out “Iowa Writer’s Workshop” for their craftmanship. [To my knowledge, however, the author is not an alumna of that particular program.] It begins with a cinematic zoom-in and ends with a cinematic fade-out, very reminiscent of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” And like that story, it is a tale of love that was meant to be – and in fact, coincidentally, the male protagonist is even named George.

But there are many more layers in this story. The author has a marvelous eye for the idiosyncratic nature of the human condition. Both George and Irene have what can most charitably be described as “quirky” parents. Both have been raised steeped in poetic allusion, and indeed, like the book Lighthouse Island by Paulette Jiles, there are quite a few references to poems in the text that will go unnoticed by those unfamiliar with Yeats or Blake or Eliot. (Interestingly, both Jiles and Netzer not only interpolate the same poets into their narratives, but also both adapt the famous romantic conceit from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in this case, when Irene remarks upon “some force pulling her ribs to his, her internal organs to his.”) The literary excerpts and adaptations are juxtaposed with a myriad of scientific analogies, forming a lovely complement and interdisciplinary amalgamation, much as the Toledo Institute includes both astronomers and astrologers in its its star-studded halls.

Evaluation: This melding of science and magic thematic elements is full of intelligent, thought-provoking meditations on the nature of knowing and the nature of love, and some exceptionally good writing.

Rating: 4/5

Published by St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan, 2014

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5 Responses to Review of “How To Tell Toledo From the Night Sky” by Lydia Netzer

  1. sandynawrot says:

    Shine Shine Shine was science and love as well, but I didn’t love it. It was just a little off to me. But I agree the woman is talented, and of course the beloved JJ is always involved, so.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I met the author last week and she is scary smart (like you) so I can imagine the book is multi-layered. To be honest, I’m a little intimidated to read one of her books.

  3. This sounds interesting – I like the sound of it but it sounds really deep!

  4. I would like this book I think! Good review, Jill!

  5. stacybuckeye says:

    I am so happy that you liked this one. I was on the fence about it, but did add it to my list because I thought I the fated lovers aspect would keep me interested 🙂

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