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by John Q McDonald --- 7 August 2005

The Path of Minor Planets

by Andrew Sean Greer

The basic structure and theme of this book are, on the surface intriguing and thoughtful. Something, though, gets lost along the way. We are introduced to a group of astronomers, who have gathered on a remote south-seas island to witness a meteor shower associated with the current perihelion passage of a comet discovered by one of them a dozen years previous. It is 1965, and the group are immersed in their PhD studies. And they are immersed in their personal lives as well, and those lives are sharply observed by each other, and by family members and friends who orbit around the group. Dr. Swift co-discovered the comet with Dr. Manday. Their friends and family are here, tallying the increasing number of meteors as the night unfolds. But there are kids running around (paradoxically playing ball in pitch darkness), and tragedy strikes in the middle of this comemorative event.

The book continues, revisiting these people every six years (1971, 1977, 1983, etc.), as Comet Swift alternately reaches aphelion and perihelion in its 12-year orbit. This is an inventive way to mark the passage of time in a group of characters and is the best aspect of this novel. We follow as the kids age, the PhD students go on to their careers, and as the mentors descend into old age. Death marks the years as well, as do various connections made and unmade. Greer describes a grand arc in these lives, but there is something still lacking. The characters, mostly astronomers, are familiar enough, but don't quite convey a real love for the stars. (Your present reviewer is an astronomer, and could note some astronomical inconsitencies as well, but these are not glaring enough to affect the story or the writing.) Also, Greer's writing is often densely florid to the point of excess. He telegraphs many upcoming events, and places one character's thoughts into the perceptions of another, while indicating the latter would never know these things. This ornateness detracts from an otherwise well-structured narrative and keeps the book from becoming a great book. Still, this is this author's debut work, and one can hope for more. (Indeed, as Greer went on to win a Pulitzer in 2018.)

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Also by Greer: [The Story of a Marriage]