‘How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky,’ by Lydia Netzer

Two years ago, Lydia Netzer’s career blasted off with a first novel called “Shine Shine Shine” that stretched from housewives in Virginia to robots on the moon. The story spliced together marriage, motherhood and space travel to breed a hybrid of romantic comedy and scientific reverie.

With her second novel, “How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky,” Netzer remixes those ingredients and aims for the stars once again. St. Martin’s is printing 100,000 copies. And why not? An author’s reach should exceed her grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

Houston, we have a problem.

The story involves two astrophysicists, “twin souls,” born on the same day 29 years ago. One is brilliant but strict Irene Sparks, who refuses to have sex with her gamer boyfriend. The other is brilliant but dreamy George Dermont, who has slept with every female astrophysicist he can find. Naturally, he’s “broad-boned and firm as a rock,” with “apple cheeks, the curve of dark hair on his noble brow.” Netzer has some fun draping a few garlands of scientific mumbo jumbo around the set, but as renowned astrophysicists, George and Irene are about convincing as firemen and French maids in a porno.

When the story opens, Irene has just used a revolutionary instrument in her laboratory to create a little black hole, an object with such a strong gravitational pull that no narrative logic can escape. When word of this discovery is released to the world, she’s immediately hired by the prestigious Toledo Institute of Astronomy, where George works. Although her arrival displaces him from his lab, the moment George sees her, he realizes she’s the missing part of his soul.


"How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky" by Lydia Netzer. (St. Martin's)

The novel’s most endearing aspect is George’s ability to perceive classical gods and fairies flying all around him. A scientist deeply sensitive to the fanciful forces of life, George knows he mustn’t tell anyone that he sees Ra hanging from the back of the lab or hears a goddess in the back seat of his car. “But he didn’t want to stop seeing them,” Netzer writes. “They kept him from being so unendurably alone.” While Irene “did not believe in love, or any god,” George relies on these celestial visitors to reveal a new theory about the symmetry of the universe and, more important, to lead him toward his soul mate. “From behind the columns painted to the walls, the naiads pointed their fingers. From the cherubs pulling eagerly on vines in the rug, from the gargoyles flocked against the ceiling, all the demigodly fingers were pointing, as if in a giant circle radiating inward, and telling him: her.”

Will these two star-aligned nerds end up together?

Unfortunately, there is no uncertainty principle at work in this romantic calculation. Irene and George were conceived by their psychic mothers — once best friends — for the express purpose of someday falling in love. That creepy plan fell apart decades ago, and their mothers have been estranged ever since, but the cosmological and astrological forces that shaped baby Irene and baby George now exert an influence that neither science nor Irene’s skepticism can overcome.

Still, a romantic comedy — like nature — abhors a vacuum, and so the plot prances through a number of complications and flashbacks. Alcoholism, child abuse, suicide, cancer — these bits of dark matter are mashed up with silly hijinks to produce a story that’s neither particularly tragic nor very funny. We learn what split apart George and Irene’s New-Agey mothers all those years ago. We watch George and Irene break into a mortuary. We see George extract himself from a relationship with a young woman raised mute by a crazy father. At one point, that strange young woman jumps out of a boat and grabs a whale.

I’m eager to be dazzled and amused by elements of surrealism and absurdity. A chaotic jumble of antics and erudition worked fairly well a few years ago in William Giraldi’s “Busy Monsters.” And Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus” cast a magical spell with its story of two young lovers whose fates were intertwined by their own guardians’ freaky plan.

The problem in “How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky” is that its potentially comic scenes rarely attain escape velocity. They’re just short bursts of zaniness, piled on, one after another in surprisingly clunky sentences. You can hear the laugh track spooling away in the otherwise silent space of this story.

What really sinks the novel, though, is its asinine dialogue. It feels almost cruel to quote passages, but consider this one example:

“ ‘I want to have sex with you,’ she said, laughing to the point she was crying, and then wiping away the tears. She punched him in the chest. ‘Sex! I want to have sex!’

“ ‘Good!’ said George. ‘That is super good because I want to do that, too!’

“ ‘No, you don’t understand,’ she said, sniffing and pulling herself together, wiping her eyes. ‘I mean I want to have sex like in my vagina.’ She pointed at his zipper. ‘That going in there,’ and she pointed at her crotch. This sent her off into another gale of laughter.

“ ‘That’s great, because that’s exactly how sex is done. Exactly that way.’ He was confused a little by her behavior, but in his mind the fact that she was talking and pointing at his crotch was enough to distract him from analysis.

“ ‘This is going to be OK, Irene,’ he said. ‘This is going to be great.’ ”

No, it’s not. Not at all. Long before I reached the end of this dim comedy, I was eager to find a black hole.

Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews appear in Style every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.

HOW TO TELL TOLEDO FROM THE NIGHT SKY

By Lydia Netzer

St. Martin’s. 339 pp. $25.99

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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