March 2006

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Year of the Comets: A Journey from Sadness to the Stars by Jan DeBlieu

I had just finished reading Jan DeBlieu’s Year of the Comets when the James Frey controversy reared its ugly head. It was kind of interesting to hear one memoir be torn apart while considering a review for another. I have not read Frey’s book, but I have read plenty of other memoirs in the past that made me wonder just how an author could possibly lay claim to distant conversations and memories. I clearly have not been enough of a skeptic when it came to this sort of thing (I fell for Nasdijj), but I’m learning how to be a lot more careful. Happily, Comets made it easy to love memoirs again, as DeBlieu’s book was written the right way -- carefully and honestly. It is a wonderful and rich look at an amateur astronomer’s growing love and knowledge for night sky, just as her family struggles with the debilitating weight of clinical depression. It’s a book about finding your way in and out of intense emotional pain, just as astronomers have found their way across the universe for centuries. I found it a very worthy read, and a fascinating peek into the heart of a very talented writer.

The events in Comets are bracketed by the arrival of two stellar events: the comet Hyakutake which became visible in the Spring of 1996, and the comet Hale-Bopp which arrived the following year. In between the two, DeBlieu’s mother-in-law succumbed to a hard battle with cancer and passed away. Her death had an enormous impact on DeBlieu’s husband Jeff, who had apparently fended off small episodes of depression throughout his life, but had never before found himself literally overwhelmed with sadness. DeBlieu found herself struggling to maintain their household and care for their young son in the wake of Jeff’s increasing inability to communicate, work, and eventually get out of bed. She turns to the comet Hyakutake as something to focus on as her well ordered life takes on an air of uncontrollability. She studies star charts, researches astronomers and tries to understand as Jeff becomes less and less the man she fell in love with. His pain is very effectively portrayed in the book -- his grief over the loss of his mother is raw and wrenching, even in the small doses his wife reveals. At one point, as his mother is dying, they have the following exchange:

“I heard somewhere,” Jeff said, “that soldiers dying on the battlefield cry out for their mothers. People walking through the carnage at Normandy heard grown men calling out ‘Mommy!’” He shook his head. “Calling not for their girlfriends or wives, but for their mothers.”
“What does it feel like to know your mother is dying?” I asked gently.
“Scary. I’m scared, mostly.”
“Of what?”
“Of not having a mother.”

And right there, on page 33, DeBlieu had me convinced of her authenticity. Because I know that it is not the kind of conversation you forget, not ever. And I know what Jeff is feeling is true, because everyone who loses a parent they love feels exactly the same way.

What I really liked about Comets though is that DeBlieu didn’t rely on reconstructed conversations to tell her story. She also didn’t crawl inside her husband’s head and psychoanalyze everything he said or did in the period after his mother’s death. Mostly she dwells on her own confusion about depression and its effect on her marriage while she simultaneously comes to rely more and more on star gazing as a way to fill her thoughts with something other than what to do about her life. What begins as something casual, a few long looks at the stars like all of us do, rapidly becomes the central focus of her days. She starts planning evening trips to places without lights to interfere with her viewing and digs out old star charts and books. Clearly from the text she also began to do an awesome amount of research on the lives and discoveries of various astronomers. The year of the comets became for her another way of looking at the world, and all the possibilities of life that stretch beyond it. The irony is that just as she was busy making larger discoveries, her husband Jeff was disappearing into a smaller and smaller version of himself. DeBlieu did not know what to do to help him, and thus she turned to the stars, in an effort to help herself.

It’s important to note that while Jeff was struggling with depression he was under the care of a licensed professional who did help him to deal with his intense sadness. It was something he had to largely accomplish on his own however, and DeBlieu found herself in a support role during this time. While she was astounded by just how much modern science does not know about depression, learning this didn’t help her figure out what she should do. The stars were something concrete, something real that she could look at and understand. She could track comets and see where they were going next; as opposed to the unfolding mystery in her own home. It is no surprise that the night sky would hold such an irresistible lure for the writer, she wanted to understand something and if it could not be the man she loved, then at least it could be the stars.

I found Year of the Comets to be a very compelling read. The opportunity to learn at the side of a fellow amateur stargazer was particularly appealing as I have turned our own telescope to the Moon and the planets on more than one occasion, hoping to seem something that will stir me beyond my own predictable life. Jan DeBlieu’s research really impressed the hell out of me -- I learned a lot from her as I have always been too intimidated to tackle the kind of reading material that she was willing to dive into. I liked learning about Thomas Harriott and Charles Messier and Edwin Hubble and having DeBlieu along for a guide made this journey into astronomy both pleasant and fascinating. I think as a science writer in particular, she is someone to watch.

Ultimately though, Year of the Comets is a memoir, and it must be considered on the shaky ground that such a classification now implies. I think that DeBlieu has shown with this book one of the best ways in which a memoir should be written -- by providing a compelling personal story that is grounded in easily provable fact (the death of one loved one and sickness of another). By framing her husband’s illness around her own personal adventure into astronomy she gives her readers an excellent science journal as well -- and leaves us with little doubt about her honesty in the face of such impressive research. Jan DeBlieu doesn’t want to save you, she just wants you to take a moment and think. She certainly has gained my attention with this very elegant book, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

Year of the Comets: A Journey from Sadness to the Stars by Jan DeBlieu
Shoemaker & Hoard
ISBN: 1593760701
200 pages