Choosing a single idea or image to rest a story on is difficult to do well. Often, the overuse of symbolic significance will begin to weigh down the story. Thankfully, this is intelligently avoided by Bishop. The comet is a thematic touchstone throughout, though doesn’t overwhelm the personal story. Told from the perspective of an awkward teenager, rather too like his eccentric father, the plot weaves the emotional relationships of the son and his parents with a good level of realism. The father’s growing preoccupation with the approaching comet gives pace which builds to a natural climax. The novel begins as Alan senior buys a telescope for his son, and Junior forgoes stargazing to nurture his Gatsby-like obsession with the girl who lives across the water at the end of his garden. Their friendship is very sweet and is written with real veracity and tenderness.
The person I felt most empathy for in the novel was his mother, who exemplifies Friedan’s ‘problem-with-no-name’; the novel is largely set in the 1970s. The ending has the tone of a happy one, yet I really wasn’t happy with her conclusion; (minor spoiler alert) I don’t believe that she is better off in an unhappy relationship than in no relationship.
There were a couple of other small things that I didn’t enjoy. Firstly, the novel is first person, but lapses into an omniscience of other people’s thoughts that disrupts the voice. Secondly, sometimes, things were introduced and I’d think, ‘Oh what a clever subtle parallel, I like what you’ve done there,’ only to shortly after have the subtlety shattered by the author very obviously pointing out what he’d done there. I just think the readers should be given more credit: the character didn’t have to say, ‘and that meant something to me because it reminded me of that other significant plot point.’ Thirdly, I could have done without the narrative framing: the novel begins and ends with the protagonist as an adult. This means it loses a Catcher in the Rye, Perks of Being a Wallflower ‘coming-of-age’ edge that it is close to in places. Especially at the end, his evaluation seems a bit saccharine.
Overall though, worth a read. I love a novel with a good level of real research and the historical stories about comets were fantastic. A tricky device is used well to draw together and bring a new dimension to a family drama.
Thanks to NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine for this review copy.