Not a lot to love in Toledo

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Sharon Chisvin

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.

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