This is a cleverly plotted and well-written book. It explores the similarities between the laws of physics and the principles characterizing relationships, in telling a story about three people whose lives illustrate these correspondences.
Twelve-year-old Ethan Forsythe is a gifted boy with a genius I.Q. being raised by Claire, a single mom who used to be a ballerina but gave up her dreams to raise Ethan. Ethan never knew his dad, but now that he is coming into puberty and his body is changing, he feels the loss of a male role model more acutely:
“Men had their own language – foreskins, beards, erections – but he knew his mum couldn’t be his translator. Masculinity was a foreign dialect Ethan still needed to learn.”
Moreover, he is getting bullied in school because of his being different. Will Fraser used to be Ethan’s best friend. Now, Will was embarrassed to be seen with him, and joined with the boys who bullied Ethan, calling Ethan “Stephen Hawking” (an intended insult that Ethan took as a compliment). But Ethan, fascinated with cosmology and physics and ordering his life by them, dealt with the situation accordingly:
“Everything will be okay, he told himself. It’s just school. Not the end of the universe. Sure, since it could be expanding indefinitely at an accelerated rate, the end of the universe was probably inevitable. But it wasn’t going to happen today.”
However, two things happen to upset Ethan’s equanimity. One is that his father Mark, now living on the other side of Australia, comes back to Sydney because his own father is dying and wants to see Ethan before he dies.
Another is that the bullying in school intensifies, with critical consequences.
The momentum of these forces brings the characters back together again, but there are some principles that couldn’t be overcome, notably the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Arrow of Time. But what about gravity, and quantum entanglement? The story leaves you guessing until the end about how it will turn out, much like the situation with Schrödinger’s cat, the famous physics thought experiment.
Discussion: The prose is very impressive in many ways. The author writes well, and manages to tie concepts from science seamlessly into the story, making them understandable as well as germane.
For example, when Claire and Mark first met at a pub, Mark taught Claire how to play pool, explaining it to her by the concept of momentum. She later reflected on it:
“Claire never had a mind for theories and science, but she always remembered that when bodies collided momentum was exchanged. Despite everything that happened and no matter how hard she tried, Claire couldn’t forget their beautiful collision. . . . Claire loathed it. She hated that she was never allowed to forget. Perhaps Mark still felt it too. But as much as she willed it to go away, that was the problem. Momentum couldn’t be destroyed.”
Ethan also understands the world and himself using scientific knowledge. He knows that the constellations are pictures perceived out of groups of stars that only make sense when viewed from Earth, because the constituent stars are located in different places in time and space. Similarly, Ethan knows that his self – the person he appears to be, is a picture made out of the sum of what happened to him at different times and places, that now tells a story. His story.
Some of the author’s writing, while still alluding to ideas from physics, is more notable for the other metaphorical pictures it evokes. For example, when Mark returns to Sydney on a plane flight from his home in Kalgoorlie:
“In Sydney, it felt like the city and sky both grew from the ground. Space wasn’t infinite there – it had a limit, a lid – but it was the opposite out west. Everything was open and endless; the wide land seemed to hang from the wider stars. There was nothing familiar in Kalgoorlie to anchor him. He lived a new life on a new planet.”
And there is this lovely image conveying a sense of a trip back home being like a trip in a time machine, an idea that recurs in the plot:
“Sydney’s lights quivered in the distance as he stared out the tiny window of this soaring machine, piloting him straight into his past.”
As for the characterization, I really had sympathy for Mark until the author inserted one passage into the story about what Mark did earlier in the day of Ethan’s injury that I thought was a gratuitous way to take that sympathy away. I didn’t like Claire much; I thought that in spite of her devotion to Ethan, she was too self-involved, selfish, and unobservant about the others in her life. Yet it was interesting that she was made out to be “the good person.” Both Mark and Claire were well-drawn though, neither being totally one-dimensional. I loved the kids, both Ethan as well as his friend Alison.
Evaluation: I liked this book a lot, but thought there was a bit of unevenness in the quality of it. I didn’t think Claire and Mark always acted in a consistent way, and I thought the last section could have been omitted, maybe should have been.
I wouldn’t mind at all seeing a sequel though; the story was so good in many ways, and I would love to know what happened next for the characters.
Published in the U.S. by Gallery Books, 2016