Not a lot to love in Toledo
IRENE Sparks and George Dermont were made for each other. Literally. Their mothers, childhood best friends and mystic dabblers, deliberately planned their 1980s pregnancies and deliveries so that their children would be born at the same time, become soul mates and eventually find true love with one another. This plan, and what transpired before and after it was put into action, is at the heart of American author Lydia Netzer’s new novel, the intriguingly named How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky. Like Netzer’s debut novel Shine, Shine, Shine, this second book combines elements of science, space, mythology and metaphysics to tell its offbeat story. It’s promising at first, but soon, in spite of its quirky premise and insightful observations about life and love, becomes burdensome and a little boring. The main problem with this novel is its four main figures — Irene and George, and their mothers Bernice and Sally. While all unique characters and therefore potentially interesting, none are developed well enough beyond their idiosyncrasies. When Sally and Bernice make their plan for their future children, they are teenagers, disillusioned about love because of their respective parents’ divorces. As they age, Sally evolves from a basketball star to a hippie and eventually a smart and savvy lawyer. Bernice also goes through a hippie stage, becomes a professional psychic and then a love-struck alcoholic. Their best-friendship is never convincing — especially considering what Sally doesn’t know and doesn’t realize about Bernice — and the end of their relationship comes too abruptly, too easily and too implausibly. The relationship that eventually develops between their offspring is equally unconvincing, even though it forms the bulk of the novel. Irene is a strange, scarred and lonely woman. An astrophysicist by profession, she toils away in a university lab, trying to create black holes, spending evenings in an unfulfilling relationship with a video-game designer named Belion. George is an astrologer, poet, visionary and womanizer who is trying to map the stars in order to prove the existence of God. He and Irene meet as adults when she accepts a job at the Toledo Institute of Astronomy, where he already works. Their romance begins immediately, and although it is fast and furious, it is clearly forced and surprisingly dull. This dullness is difficult to comprehend. The subject matter of this novel, beyond the core relationships, delves into questions about faith and fate, dreams, destiny and love. And Netzer is often a very fine and astute writer. “Why do some people fall in love with each other, and others don’t?” she wonders on behalf of her characters. “What is love? It’s so, so, so stupid right up until it’s real. And then it’s the most important thing in the world, whether you believe in it or not.” This is so true. Unfortunately, the love that she writes about in this novel never quite feels real enough for it to matter.
Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.