August 2014

Heather Partington


How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer

Just how close is the relationship between love and science? How much of what we think is raw human emotion can be explained by coincidence, common interest, or happenstance? Could love be fated through careful planning, a set of traits cultivated between friends in their two children so they might each become the other's soul mate?

Lydia Netzer's How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky asks these questions through the story of Irene and George. Irene and George are destined for each other from the beginning, born of a shared idea between their mothers to conceive, give birth, and raise them for each other. "On the night when George and Irene were born," the novel opens, "the sun set in a boil of red-orange ribbons across the Ohio sky." Irene's mother, Bernice, and George's mother, Sally, plan to give birth on the same night by taking herbs to induce labor, and then to raise the children separately so that they might come back together as adults and fall in love. Toledo begins when Irene meets George, as they are adults, however. Bernice has just died. The parallel story of their mothers' pasts unfolds like a mystery. We know the experiment they created, but not where it went wrong; there is a sense of doom beneath Irene's relationship with her mother, and it takes the better part of the novel for its cause to come to light.

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky is a mix of many disparate ideas: astronomy and astrology, science and love, dreams and reality. Many of the characters are able to practice lucid dreaming, often finding each other in the Hinterland when life keeps them apart.

When she meets George, Irene has to come to terms with not only her ignorance of her mother's life, but also the holes in her own memories resulting from childhood trauma. "When I was six," she says, "my mother burned our house down. Not a dream house; a real house. Down to the ground. I don't remember a thing before that. She wants to rebuild the house in the Hinterland, keep it forever, but I won't let her." Irene not only has to discover why her mother made those plans but also why she has blocked out her own childhood. How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky is a novel of duality. The duality of Irene's story unfolding alongside that of her mother's provides a nice parallel.

The main love story in the novel is Irene and George, but the other story that runs beneath it is that of their two mothers. Through the establishment of these two story lines, Netzer is able to ask about the nature of love, itself. Does it even exist? Are there conditions that prime us to feel it? "[Bernice] was closed to Sally's open. Dark to Sally's light. Lingering resentment to Sally's effusive forgiveness. Bitter truth to Sally's grand statement. Smirk to Sally's horse laugh. Fuck to Sally's kiss. Love to Sally's love." As much of the love in the novel is ill-fated as fated; even when it comes to science and planning, Netzer seems to say that it can't be completely controlled.

For a novel that exists chiefly in the world of science, Toledo demonstrates the tenuous nature of love through its multiple pairings.

Here is what is known: one got pregnant, and then the other. They took some herbal drugs to induce labor, and they had their babies at the same time. What else really happened? Who knows? What else can really be documented or understood? Why do some people fall in love with each other, and others don't? What is love? It's so, so, so stupid until it's real. And then it's the most important thing in the world, whether you believe in it or not.

For all their careful planning, Netzer's characters seem to demonstrate that love is a sloppy, controlling, and unavoidable mess. Though the two main characters grow up to be scientists, they can't outsmart their parentage or the plan that was set in place for them before they were in existence.

While the love stories of the two pairs become the central plot lines of the novel, the book is strongest when Irene is coming to terms with the feelings she has about her mother and her fears about becoming her mother. Difficulties in their relationship led to a separation that she has to reconcile upon her mother's death. Ultimately, this means asking questions of herself about what it is that drives her life. She wonders if she is able to choose her own destiny, or if she is a slave to the plan encoded in her DNA, a replica of the wild, drunk woman who created her and put this plan in place.

Who cares if it's dangerous? Who wants to be the person who doesn't touch two bells together to make a sound, who doesn't hit a baseball with a bat, doesn't grind an orange against a knife? In life, there is only collision to keep us from dissolution, and there is only love to keep us from death. In this bumping into that, there is salvation and sacrament, an end to the endless falling, a wall between us and oblivion.

Irene comes to see her mother as a whole, real person, not just a drunk. But she also begins to discover the potential power of choice and realizes that even when her fate has been predetermined, she has agency in the decisions she makes.

How To Tell Toledo From The Night Sky is charming in its mix of science with love; this also makes it unusual as a love story. Netzer mines the ideas of astrology and astronomy for metaphor, but this is a world that feels unexplored by fiction. Netzer's take on fate and chance are unique, an engineered set of fated lovers that call to mind literature's star-crossed lovers of the past.

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer
St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 978-1250047021
352 pages