Review: How To Tell Toledo From The Night Sky by Lydia Netzer

Title How To Tell Toledo From The Night Sky
Author Lydia Netzer
Published July 1st, 2014 by St. Martin’s Press
Pages 352 Pages
Intended Target Audience Adult
Genre & Keywords Contemporary, Romance, Literary Fiction, Magical Realism
Part of a Series? No
Source & Format Received an Advance Reader Copy from the publisher for review (Thanks St. Martin’s Press!), eBook
Find It On GoodreadsAmazon.comChapters

Like a jewel shimmering in a Midwest skyline, the Toledo Institute of Astronomy is the nation’s premier center of astronomical discovery and a beacon of scientific learning for astronomers far and wide. Here, dreamy cosmologist George Dermont mines the stars to prove the existence of God. Here, Irene Sparks, an unsentimental scientist, creates black holes in captivity.

George and Irene are on a collision course with love, destiny and fate. They have everything in common: both are ambitious, both passionate about science, both lonely and yearning for connection. The air seems to hum when they’re together. But George and Irene’s attraction was not written in the stars. In fact their mothers, friends since childhood, raised them separately to become each other’s soulmates. When that long-secret plan triggers unintended consequences, the two astronomers must discover the truth about their destinies, and unravel the mystery of what Toledo holds for them — together or, perhaps, apart.

“There was one hospital in the city of Toledo, a box of light and nervous energy in the sleeping world. Inside, the people were wide awake. In the maternity ward, two mothers pushed and strained to give birth. There was a lot of grunting, a few tense moments, several people counted to ten, and then the babies emerged, full of love and covered in blood. The mothers that birthed them smiled at each other. These births had been carefully arranged.
George and Irene were born to be together.”

Meet George and Irene. He’s an idealistic dreamer. She’s a pragmatic empiricist. Two astronomers. Two perfect strangers. Two test-tube soul mates destined (or was it engineered?) to spend their lives together. Twenty nine year old Irene Sparks, an astrophysicist attempting to prove that there are black holes all around us, never expected to return to Toledo. After years spent caring for her alcoholic mother and a disastrous interview at the Toledo Institute of Astronomy, her dream place of employment, Irene left it all behind and began life anew in Pittsburgh. The untimely and unexpected death of her mother changes all that, however. Returning to her childhood home in triumph after the success of her latest experiment, Irene is finally able to pursue the career she always dreamt about. It finally seems as though Irene has everything she ever wanted. Or does she? George Dermont, a postdoctoral research fellow and lecturer at the Institute of Astronomy has led a very different life. Never straying too far from his hometown of Toledo, George has spent his life searching for a woman, the one who has occupied his every waking thought since he was a small child, a ‘faery’ who he cannot name but knows with certainty is out there, waiting for him. A man who receives visits from gods and goddesses who whisper the secrets of the universe, George is a man with his head in the clouds and his heart firmly set on finding the brunette astronomer a psychic once told him he was destined to fall in love with. Both have spent their lives consciously or unconsciously searching for an inexplicable something. A lost connection, a missing piece, a fulfilling partnership, consoling themselves when this never materialized. Until George and Irene finally meet. But when the two discover that their whirlwind romance was not written in the stars but rather concocted by their mothers nearly thirty years prior, George and Irene are left to question everything they thought they knew about themselves and one another and where they should go from here.

“As for the twin souls of George and Irene, this is their story. How they met on earth, and how they slept and practiced for their deaths, night after night, and met in certain dreams, and came to love and lose each other, and live on.”

Regular readers of Pop! Goes The Reader’s will know that young adult fiction and the occasional middle grade novel are what I read and review most often on this site. That said, I’ve longed to step outside of my comfort zone more often in order to expand my horizons and become a more well-rounded reader. I’m so immensely grateful that I decided to begin with Lydia Netzer’s How To Tell Toledo From The Night Sky. Having heard nothing but glowing praise from friends and family about the author’s debut publication, Shine Shine Shine, I was eager to experience Netzer’s writing firsthand. Admittedly, when I first read the synopsis of the author’s latest release, I was more than a little apprehensive. Never one for either math or science, I was worried that the subject matter wouldn’t translate well or that the concepts would simply go over my head. Thankfully, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Unconventional, imaginative and indescribable, Lydia Netzer’s How To Tell Toledo From The Night Sky, is an unforgettable love story for the modern age that is not to be overlooked under any circumstances.

“She felt free, with his eyes shut, to look at him, to think about touching him, about tearing at him, about striking her hands against his wide collarbones, being encircled in his arms. I want to take my clothes off, she thought. I want to be naked for him, press up on him, naked as a clam. I want this. She had never, ever wanted this before. And this was why she couldn’t stop looking at George, all through the lecture. She was surprised to be wanting him. It wasn’t like expecting a red circle and finding a blue one. It was more like unfolding an envelope and finding water. Looking into a hole and seeing the sky. She didn’t know when she had been so surprised.”

George and Irene are a paradox in that they simultaneously appear to be both a study in contrasts while also having a great deal in common, thanks in large part to their respective mothers’ machinations. Born and bred to be compatible in even the smallest of ways, while the two have a great deal in common professionally, their personal lives diverge quite sharply. Despite her diminutive size (or perhaps because of it), twenty nine year old Irene, a ‘virgin from the neck down’, is a assertive, no-nonsense woman who believes in math, science and little else, giving no time or attention to idiotic indulgences like music or poetry. She is cold and largely unemotional and purposefully holds others at bay, due in large part to her contentious and often toxic relationship with her mother, a struggling alcoholic. Forced to take care of a mother who was slowly committing suicide, one drink at a time, Irene copes by courting death herself, teetering on the edge of bridges, imagining what it would be like to take that one, final plunge. George Dermont, meanwhile, is an eternal optimist who believes in the power and resilience of love, and has spent the entirety of his life looking for that very thing. Known for his many dalliances amongst his coworkers after learning from a psychic that his ‘fated’ beloved is a brown-haired astronomer, George has dedicated his life to finding the woman who he believes will fill that final missing piece of himself. Both are lively, vibrant, interesting characters, though if I were forced to choose a favourite, it would undeniably be Irene. She is strong, brash and relentless, unapologetic about her passions and the manner in which she pursues them. The conflict she faces upon learning of the reason for her very existence is compelling and it isn’t difficult to feel for her and the situation she has been placed in. Likewise, the cast of secondary characters are equally enchanting and well rendered. From Belion, Irene’s hulking but gentle, if socially awkward boyfriend, a video game designer also known as the ‘Archmage of the Underdark’, to Kate Oakenshield, a strange and sorrowful academic raised as a mute and who often communicates in clucks and chirps, each character is eccentric and interesting in their own right. Finally, How To Tell Toledo From The Night Sky tells the story of George and Irene’s mothers, Sally and Bernice, tracking their lives from childhood to adulthood and demonstrating how their rather unconventional intentions for their two children first arose.

“This is a love story about astronomy, he thought. Twin souls collide and love each other forever. And no one ever goes crazy. And no one ever dies. And the universe folds back on itself and clicks into place, and the pylons holding up the electrical wires are really trees. And the trees are really gods.”

Lydia Netzer’s writing is exquisite, a spell-binding symphony of consonants, vowels and verbs, each word chosen with precision and an obvious love for the language that cannot be ignored. Prospective reader should be aware that this is not a light-hearted novel, however. At times heart-rending, at others quirky and uplifting, the writing is nevertheless elaborate and involved. This not the sort of novel one can read in a single sitting or speed through in a matter of hours. Instead it is like a rich, decadent dessert that one must savour in order to properly enjoy. Returning to a new passage in this book was like slipping into a lucid dream not unlike those experience by Irene. There was something surreal and otherworldly about it. This is reinforced further by the inclusion of magical realism that permeates every inch of the text. Fate. Destiny. Soul mates. Gods and goddesses. Parallel Dimensions. Lucid dreaming. Tea leaves. Crystal balls. All are interwoven into the story with as little fanfare as though the author were doing no more than describing the weather. Admittedly, the inclusion of these elements can initially be a little disorienting, particularly when set against an otherwise contemporary, realistic setting based on rationality and science. Soon enough, however, one quickly becomes accustomed to these strange, weird and wonderful asides that lend an air of magic and enchantment to an otherwise familiar story of Boy Meets Girl. Perhaps most interesting of all is the unique perspective the author offers on the subject of love. While there is a great deal of discussion regarding issues of soul mates, fate, predetermination and other such nebulous concepts, Netzer also examines love from a rational, science-based standpoint, examining the conscious decision people make to fall, and remain, in a perplexing state that causes as much pain as it does happiness. Love is messy, complicated, and often presents itself when we least expect it, in manners that can be as unexpected as they are inconvenient. While the narrative style might not work well for everyone, I have absolutely no doubt that as a whole How To Tell Toledo From The Night Sky will have a great deal of crossover appeal, promising to attract fans of contemporary romance, literary fiction and magical realism as well as other more eclectic and specific interests including (but not limited to) online role playing games, astrology, astronomy, cosmology and more. Netzer excels at providing a little something for everyone.

“Here’s what is known: One got pregnant and then the other. They took some herbal drugs to induce labour, 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 right up until it’s real. And then it’s the most important thing in the world, whether you believe in it or not.”

A novel that combines the best that contemporary romance, literary fiction and magical realism have to offer, Lydia Netzer’s How To Tell Toledo From The Night Sky is one 2014 release that should be at the very top of every reader’s to-be-read list this season. If compelling characters, a unique and quirky concept and a breathtaking narrative style are not enough to entice you, this novel should be read for the sheer novelty alone. Responsible for tackling everything from fate to predetermination, black holes to planes of symmetry, true love to tea leaves and everything in between, How To Tell Toledo From The Night Sky is unlike anything I have encountered before and I have absolutely not doubt that I will remember (and re-read) this novel for many years to come. This eccentric, unforgettable, modern love story shines as brilliantly as the brightest star in the furthest galaxy.

Please Note: All quotations included in this review have been taken from an advanced reader copy and therefore might be subject to change.

Still not sure this is the right book for you? Here’s what some other reviewers had to say about it!

● Jess @ Gone With The Words wrote “How to Tell Toledo From The Night Sky is one of the most quirky, wonderful books I’ve read.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Shannon @ River City Reading wrote “Far from a generic love story, How to Tell Toledo From The Night Sky is a wonderfully weird blend of science, love and fate set against the trials of family and friendship.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Lori @ She Treads Softly wrote “This is not a run-of-the-mill love story. It is an original blend of science, mythology, fate, predetermination, psychics, gaming, family history, dream-control, and romance.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

2 Responses

  1. Oh my gosh, Jen, I. Am. THRILLED you loved this one! I saw it on netgalley and debated for so long, that by the time I finally made up my mind it was long gone. I’ve also heard nothing but praise for Shine Shine Shine so I was curious about her new release. 🙂 DEFINITELY hunting it down now!
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Hi! I’m Jen! I’m a thirty-something introvert who loves nothing more than the cozy comfort of home and snuggling my two rescue cats, Pepper and Pancakes. I also enjoy running, jigsaw puzzles, baking and everything Disney. Few things bring me more joy than helping a reader find the right book for them!