By Lydia Netzer
St. Martin’s Griffin; ISBN: 978-1250047465
Paperback, 368 pages. ©2015
Irene, a pragmatic astronomer who believes only in science, makes tiny black holes in a device of her own design. George, a dreamer and an astronomer, hallucinates goddesses and gods who reveal to him a marvel in the universe, one that will make him famous if he can only prove it. When their worlds collide through the Toledo Institute of Astronomy, they discover they both love the same obscure music, memorized the same poetry, and were born on the same day in the same year in the same hospital. George believes they are destined to be together. Irene doesn’t believe in love.
Bernice and Sally have been friends since childhood. Both are from broken homes. Both are lonely and turn to each other for comfort and support. Sally is driven. Bernice is psychic. In their youth, they plan to each have a child, raise them to be soulmates, and see them married to each other. But Bernice is keeping a secret, one that will destroy their friendship, her future, and possibly any chance that George and Irene might find happiness.
This is Lydia Netzer’s second book, and is every bit as quirky as her first, Shine, Shine, Shine. In Toledo, she pits belief against science over and over, in every major character. Bernice, the psychic, claims to base her predictions on sound reasoning and scientific principles. Yet she makes a prediction early in the book that only becomes relevant much later – a prognostication that couldn’t possibly have been founded in science, yet has a profound effect on the characters. Sally, who plays at astrology and tarot, and who dragged Bernice into the psychic business with big dreams for their futures, becomes a cold, calculating attorney who believes in nothing. Irene doesn’t believe in fiction, god or love, yet she learns almost from the womb how to practice lucid dreaming, and can visit her mother in dreams. George, who is working to prove that there is symmetry in the universe, not only sees deities, but nymphs and other mythic creatures that come to life from paintings, sculptures and rug patterns to distract and delight him. His belief in love is enough for both himself and Irene, and far too strong for Irene to refute.
In fact, science is almost a character in its own right in Toledo. Even the way Irene thinks, the imagery in her head, is mathematical, precise, based on astronomical principles. George’s hallucinations center on astronomy. And psychic or not, science underlies everything Bernice does, right down to documentation of every experiment. With so much of the story taking place in the Institute, or centering around activities of the Institute, even many settings take on a scientific patina.
Yet this is definitely not a dry read. Evocative, yes. Quirky, definitely. Netzer starts the story in the middle, weaving backward and forward to build mystery, providing tantalizing tidbits that fill in the gaps bit by bit, but it is only in the last fifteen percent of the book that the final piece falls into place and the reader sees the whole picture. I was drawn into this wormhole of a story without ever noticing when I passed over the event horizon and could no longer turn back. I had to know how George and Irene’s story turned out, whether George would keep his goddesses, and Irene would finally believe in something whether or not it was real.
Toledo isn’t just about Bernice and Sally, or Irene and George. This is a story about how the baggage we carry becomes orbital debris that endangers those things we want most. It’s about the struggle to control the damage, and make a meaningful life in spite of—or maybe because of—the fallout.
Profound and humorous, down-to-earth and inspiring, tragic and heartwarming in turns, this is a book I will read again and again. Highly recommended.