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Stars in their courses

BILL DURYEA
Published July 27, 2003

THEATER OF THE STARS:

A Novel of Physics and Memory

By N.M. Kelby

Theia (Imprint of Hyperion), $23.95, 274 pp

Reviewed by BILL DURYEA

The subtitle of N.M. Kelby's new novel set my teeth on edge. It's pretentious and like most pretense it masks an insecurity.

In this case, I suspect, the insecurity is of a writer who worries the reader will doubt the emotional truth of what she has written unless it's weighted down with a lot of scientific ballast. Why isn't it considered achievement enough just to build a plot that floats and has a nice line?

I say all this up front, because Theater of the Stars is a good book. I imagine that without the ruminations on black hole theory it might even be better. As it is the story is unique and moving. Kelby, when she avoids bathetic sentimentality, has a real gift for description.

"Her arms are thrown open. From a distance, she looks as if she's in a newspaper photograph. The tornado long gone, she is cast aside, the only thing that remains of what once was a house, a home, a family."

The woman is Lucienne, an astrophysicist from Boston who at this moment is asleep in a Paris hotel room. She has come to accept an award that is to be presented by her mother, Helene, also an accomplished physicist. But Helene has attempted suicide and this shocking act has launched Lucienne on a journey into her mother's hidden past as a wartime scientist on the Manhattan Project.

At times the plot glows like the radioactive skin of the men and women whose experiments with nuclear fission ultimately yield the atom bomb.

In one electrically vivid scene, Helene tries to kill her young daughter when a fire triggers a memory of hiding from the Nazis during the war.

"Helene looked at her daughter with flint eyes. Then wrapped her hands around Lucienne's neck."

But Kelby's spare style, which is usually a good defense against overwriting, sometimes just sounds overwrought.

After neighbors rescue Lucienne from her mother's grip, Kelby writes "She could still feel her mother's hands, but not around her neck. They felt as if they were around her heart."

Sometimes the story seems too full of meaningful things. Sept. 11 makes an appearance as images on the television in Lucienne's hotel room. Lucienne "notices something odd" just before the second tower collapses.

"She sees what seems to be a flock of birds, wingless, escape out the windows. Oh, Lucienne thinks, not birds. She cannot imagine the choice. Lucienne turns off the television. Checks her watch. Ten more minutes before the car arrives."

Even allowing for scientific detachment and a family crisis, this reaction seems out of kilter. So why toss it in?

Perhaps it is just overreaching. Kelby struggles, and struggles hard, to weave black holes and grief, cosmic DNA and love into a plot line as all-encompassing as the "Mother of All Theories," the holy grail of science. But, like the 9/11 backdrop, it seems forced.

I much prefer the book when it is focused on the shocking and beautifully rendered details, such as the hedonistic appetites of Vincent, Helene's spurned lover. "Sometimes it would be a young girl, not more than eleven or twelve years old, whose breasts were as hard as the pits of apricots and twice as bitter in his mouth."

It seems strange to argue against taking risks in writing, but the big thoughts sound hollow:

"Darkness is a total state.

Nothing can escape the gravitational field of darkness.

Darkness collapses everything into itself.

And then she realizes she's thinking about the black hole again. The properties of a black hole.

And grief.

Overwhelmed she feels the pull of her mother like a star that has burned itself out."

For some reason I don't believe this. But when Kelby describes how Helene was so overcome by the death of her lover Basheer that she had to be sedated and then "tied down with the bedsheets until the madness passed" the understanding is real and painful.

- Bill Duryea is a Times staff writer.

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