No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, June 29, 2006

#66: Lucid Stars -- Andrea Barrett

Barrett is one of a handful of mainstream authors (having said which, I've blanked on other examples!) who can construct a robust metaphor for some aspect of human life from scientific theories. Her collection of short stories, Ship Fever, illustrates this beautifully. Lucid Stars takes its chapter headings from astronomy, and part of its plot from the conflict between astronomy and astrology. The central character, in a sense, is Ben -- real estate developer, husband, father -- but we learn of him only gradually, from observing those who are affected by him. There's no Ben-focussed narrative: just 'Penny' (wife number one), 'Cass' (Ben and Penny's daughter), 'Diane' (wife number two), and the final section, 'Two mothers, two daughters'. To be fair, Ben and Penny's son Webb doesn't warrant a section of his own either: but he's distinctly under his father's influence, and Cass's story is also his.

Penny's an astronomer, and she passes on her love of stargazing to her daughter. Diane is the daughter of an astrologer -- "they don't really tell your future, but sometimes they help you decide what to do," she rationalises to Cass when they first meet -- and finds herself increasingly lost as Cass takes on the role of Problem Stepdaughter and Ben retreats from this marriage too.

The novel is about how each woman reclaims or becomes herself. How Penny deals with a loveless marriage (teaches herself to sail); how Cass deals with a father who's emotionally, and a mother who's physically, not available.
'The region of perpetual occultation ... where we can never see the stars rise ... not lost, just invisible to us. People who live in other places can see them, but then they can't see the ones we can.'
Like everything, Cass thinks. Everything important in her life seems to be hiding in that region, lost from sight. No matter how hard she works to understand the things she can see, she'll never see the parts, just as important, that are hidden from her.

Although the novel focusses on the female characters (and the male characters, for all their effect -- Ben's compared to a black hole, 'lying in wait until love touches the edge of his gravitational field... love falls in. It, and the person doing the loving, vanish forever' -- are scarcely visible) none of them turn against men. Diane says something, at the end, about not learning anything from men (meaning Ben). And Penny says gently, "That's not fair. Just because you can't choose what you learn from someone, doesn't mean you don't learn."

I liked this book very much, as much for the atmosphere -- life on the New England coast, rooftop dinners, cats named after stars -- as for the events. It could be argued that nothing much happens: but it happens very vividly, from Diane's myriad letters scribbled on scraps of paper and shoved under the mattress, to Cass's secret parties in the house next door, to Jordan's attempts to bring the two halves of her family together.

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