Comet Tale

Andrew Sean Greer tracks the orbits of fictitious astronomers' lives.

I don't know much about science and sometimes I wish I read more about it. When I was in third grade, I wanted to be an astronaut. More than anything, I wanted to see the earth from outer space. But I'm lousy at math and as soon as I realized how much was required to study astronomy, the sky became simply something beautiful that I would never quite understand. I can live with that.

I don't think Andrew Sean Greer could. He isn't a scientist, but his debut novel, The Path of Minor Planets, revolves around astronomy. Greer contrasts the clear-cut approach to science with the human heart, which does not always have a specific equation to follow.

The book focuses on a group of astronomers who travel to a small island in the South Pacific to witness the passing of a comet. "The celebrity of the day--Comet Swift--lay in the eastern sky just now, hidden by sunlight, a streaming Chinese kite." The event is important to their careers, but it is their lives that suddenly change when a small boy dies in accident on the island.

As an epic that spans from 1965 to 1990, Planets follows its characters every 12 years with the comet's return to Earth. Through such a large time frame, the reader can watch the characters grow old. We witness the lasting effects of decisions made long ago.

Most unusual, and perhaps disconcerting to some, is the exclusion of a true protagonist. Whoever said a novel must have a protagonist? Greer chooses to tell his story about a group of scientists, all of whom witness the young boy's death. The narrators switch frequently. We are taken into the lives of Denise, the rich blonde who is in fact a genius, and Kathy, the bookish woman who realizes she loves books more than she ever loved science. Then there's Eli, who loves them both, and Professor Swift, who discovered the comet they all gather for every 12 years. Even the most minor characters in the novel get an opportunity to narrate their point of view.

The dark feeling underneath the book lies in the fact that it is the boy's story that should be told. Can you have a protagonist who is 5 years old and dies in the first chapter?

The book does not follow the life of a single character; rather it follows an event that affected many different people. They are all of equal importance, because it was the boy who changed their lives. Greer doesn't let any one character shine brighter than the rest. If anything, it is the image of the young boy that pulls the reader through the story. If he did not die, the story would be entirely different. So many decisions were made in reaction to his death that perhaps nothing would have occurred the same.

Yet, I never really noticed that I wasn't attached to one character. I never really noticed that I was essentially reading the stories of seven or so different characters. I was well aware of the shifting narrators, but it was exciting to find out what they had been doing for the past dozen years. Greer switches voices effortlessly; it never feels forced. However, I see Lydia as the most compelling character. We meet this daughter of the famous comet discoverer when she is 5 years old. She spends the rest of the book trying not to become an "intellectual." She is the most opinionated character, the most honest and perhaps the most damaged by the young boy's death.

Even so, Greer manages to make his entire ensemble cast intriguing. While the characters interested me a great deal, I found that the pace of the novel as a whole was rather slow. Some of the scenes were long and bulky. Once, the astronomers get together for a comet viewing party and we're stuck there for 50 pages. Granted, there are some flashbacks (thank God) and Greer switches narrators a few times, but it is by far the slowest part of the novel. Stick with it, though, because it will get better.

Of course, you can't write a book about comets and meteor showers and South Pacific islands if you can't write beautiful imagery. When the characters are on the tropical island they become even more vibrant. "[Lydia] had stripped to her bikini, clothes in a bundle under her arm, and walked awkwardly in the sand, picking up her legs like a sandpiper, rearranging her hair hopelessly against the breeze." Greer fills his novel with such descriptions that take you away from Tucson. He puts you in another world.

The Path of Minor Planets is a promising debut novel. And while the book isn't exactly about science, you can tell Andrew Sean Greer has a passion for it, which makes it all the more exciting to read.