How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015, 368 pages
I heard about How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer when I attended the annual Virginia Library Association conference back in October. Netzer is a funny and engaging speaker, unafraid to crack wise and be, unashamedly, herself. Her prose is much the same – quirky, in a non-mainstream/non-Zooey Deschanel way; digestibly weird; and sparse.
The novel tells the story of George and Irene, whose mothers planned their romantic success before George and Irene were born. George, whimsical and in love with the world and all its wonders, believes in things like fate and destiny, while Irene, serious and easily stressed, isn’t so sure there’s anything more than coincidence in the world. As with any love story, there are obstacles: other romantic partners, illness, forbidding parents. But what’s the difference between fate and coincidence, or Toledo and the night sky, if it’s all the same in the end?
There’s no good way to describe How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, as Netzer warned during her keynote speech. If you imagine the stereotype of women’s fiction in terms of style and add some pseudo-fantasy-mythology and maybe a bit of Jodi Picoult, you’d be on your way to Night Sky. The modge podge of elements in the novel isn’t, necessarily, what makes it feel mediocre. In fact, it’s that combination that makes it so ambitious. But I kept waiting for it to all be tied together into some kind of cohesion – and it never came.
Despite this, there’s some kind of enormous achievement in Night Sky. By using these unlikely scenarios, straight-from-the-movies characters, and supernatural elements, Netzer creates a distinct aura of realism that isn’t often present in even most realistic fiction. She articulates the private, imaginary lives we all lead in our own grand ways, publicizing them for George and Irene even while they, along with everyone else, keep their secrets.
It’s this strange conflict of unbelievable realism and mediocrity that challenges me with this book. I left it feeling like I should have liked it, but something kept me from it. Despite some of the absurd events in the book, perhaps the realism was so intense that it did not feel like anything other than real life (which, as we all know, is boring, right?). I’ve sat on reviewing this for a while, hoping I’d have something more specific to say, but I’m still left with nothing, weeks later.
Netzer tries to be profound in Night Sky. She has the language and the concept for it, but there’s something missing in the execution – at least for me. There is a certain kind of profundity about it. It’s there, floating in a cloud-like manner: I can see it, I can even understand it, but I can’t grasp it. And maybe that’s the weirdness of Night Sky, the weirdness of real life.
The enjoyment of Night Sky comes down to how you approach it. If you’ve read this far, you may have already lost. Night Sky is probably something better read with no context at all, not even a title – because isn’t that what life is? An experience without context?
❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤