‘How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky’ ponders love, fate and science

In her second novel, “How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky,” Lydia Netzer returns to outer space, the setting for her acclaimed debut, “Shine Shine Shine” (2012), for another look at the human species as it attempts to bridge the gap between life on earth and life beyond the stars. Once again, fate plays havoc with science.

Netzer has a thing about programming. In “Shine Shine Shine,” a feral child was taught to understand facial expressions and how to make conversation; in later life, he became a robotics expert who engineered robots to be more life-like. Now, Netzer asks if people can be similarly encoded to fall in love — in a match made not in heaven, but on earth.

It all starts with two precocious 12-year-old girls who think it would be cool to have babies born on the same day, then groom them to eventually marry each other. “Think what you could do for them,” Sally says to her best friend, Bernice, “to make that marriage awesome.”

Gulp. Like my tweenage plan to marry Ringo, it’s a fantasy most kids would abandon by about age 15. But these two grow up to carry out their scheme, right down to separating their twin toddlers so they won’t remember each other when they finally do meet. Thank goodness, before that can happen, something ruptures the mothers’ friendship, and Sally orders the whole wacky idea scrapped.

We don’t know much of this when the novel opens 29 years later. Astrophysicist Irene Sparks has been recruited by the prestigious Toledo Institute of Astronomy because of her research into black holes, and she moves to take a position there. Her new colleague, George Dermont, a cosmologist and professor at the fictional institute, is also on the brink of revealing his revolutionary theory — it involves a gateway to a parallel universe — but has yet to prove it.

Irene is deeply skeptical of love and, despite a live-in boyfriend, steers clear of emotional and sexual intimacy. By contrast, George, who was given a description of his future beloved by an astrologer, has been desperately auditioning every woman who fits the bill, to no avail.

The moment he spots Irene, “every electron in every atom in the universe paused, breathed in deeply, assessed the situation, and then reversed its course, spinning backward, or the other way, which was the right way all along. And afterward, the universe was exactly the same, but infinitely more right.” Equally floored, Irene pictures her sudden and overwhelming attraction to George as shocking as “unfolding an envelope and finding water.”

Fate insists they were meant for each other. But real life has other plans that force the young lovers to look for answers in a shared past they have both mysteriously forgotten.

Into Irene and George’s blossoming romance, Netzer deftly braids another star-crossed tale: the history of their mothers’ troubled friendship. Irene’s late mother, Bernice, kept her emotional secrets under wraps with alcohol; the once open-minded Sally is now a high-powered attorney with unexplained anger issues. As we learn the truth about their relationship and the particulars of their children’s births, Irene and George close in on the reasons they feel so connected.

A couple more twinned souls round out the cast — Irene’s Hulk-like boyfriend, an online game designer, leads a double life as Belion, Archmage of the Underdark; and George’s girlfriend, a math whiz named Kate, was raised by her father to communicate only through music. Like the rest of the characters in the novel, they’re as likable as they are flawed.

The good news: You don’t have to be a physics major to follow the thinking in this geektastic book. Granted, “How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky” piles on the big questions. It asks whether “religion and astronomy and astrology all used to be the same thing” — and might still be.

But Netzer keeps things grounded by blending astrophysics and cosmology with tender, illuminating insights into human relationships. The novel’s black holes are both literal and figurative — like the “whistling chasm” in the lucid dream world Irene visits each night in search of her mother. And its parallel universes come in various personal shapes and sizes: Gods and goddesses have shared George’s waking life since childhood; and in an online city of his own making, Belion stalks a mysterious virtual maiden.

Every so often, the narrator steps out of character to clarify or sum things up, offer advice to the reader, and to point out the less-than-obvious. These soliloquies seem right at home in a wickedly funny novel that plays like a Shakespearean comedy — complete with spirits and deities, fickle stars and planets, mixed signals and missed chances — at its core, a story of ordinary mortals looking for love in all its many disguises.

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