Once upon a time, I used to make note of the connections between books I was reading. With this book, several connections came roaring to the surface, even in the conversation I had with SuperChen as she recommended this book. I told her I was reading Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop, and we started talking about writers, which led to what she was currently reading, which was this book. We talk about Virginia Woolf, how I loved The Waves, and how she should give it a try. Fast forward a few days, and I’m reading The Path of Minor Planets, which not only references The Waves, but also does a similar following of characters through time.
Back to Andrew Sean Greer, whom I neatly dismissed after reading The Confessions of Max Tivoli. Our second meeting was much more pleasant. Solid writing stretched on an interesting story frame – he visits the same characters every 6 years at the perihelion or aphelion of a comet discovered by one of the characters (Professor Swift).
In 1965, the characters are gathered on a tiny island to watch the comet’s return. Denise has been bribed to get rid of her heartbreak over Carlos dumping her by traveling with the group. Eli and Kathy are along at the invitation of Professor Manday (later named as co-discoverer of the Swift comet), although Eli changed data to get a desired result instead of reporting the anomalies, the neat package earning him recognition from his professor and an invitation to join. Kathy, the newlywed bride to Eli, snapping photos of Lydia, Swift’s young daughter. A boy tumbles to his death off the tower while the party comet-watches and counts shooting stars.
Kathy only divorces Eli after he insists of admitting his affair with Denise. She ends up surrounded by books, happy alone but missing him:
“You were missing him?”
She was, but Kathy would never tell that to a soul. Longing was not a public act for her, and absence was simply that: an empty space, nothing to speak of. And, if she were to be honest, she was doing fine alone. Kathy was happy by herself. When she was a young woman, being alone had never been an option; but here, near the end of the century, it had been chosen for her and she discovered, like someone who has stepped into the wrong movie theater only to find herself transfixed, that she liked it. You did not really have to cook. You did not have to clean. You could read endlessly, stay up late reading and wake up Sunday morning with nothing ahead but a hundred cups of coffee and a million words in print. There was, of course, the debris of loneliness spread everywhere. But it was bearable. She did not long for a man in her life, after all; she only missed her husband. (p 253)
In 1971, they gather at Swift’s Sonoma farm to raise a glass to the comet at its furthest point from them, as it makes the turn and begins its six year journey back. Lydia is older, hiding in the barn and talking to Adam, Denise’s husband. Denise has baby Josh at her breast. Manday gets drunk and admits that Swift is cold, cruel, listing anything to do with people under the letter “P” in his notebook.
In 1977, they’re back on the island, Denise and Eli have begun collaborating on amateur discoveries, found a comet themselves. Adam is confined to his hut, sick. We later find out that this is when Adam finds out about Denise and Eli’s affair from Lydia, who dances off to sleep with Manday’s son, Ali.
In 1983, Swift is aging quickly, hanging out at the Exploratorium in San Francisco with his daughter Alice and her daughter. His diabetes is taking over his vision, crucial for a scientist. Manday has petitioned and won co-naming rights to their comet. Lydia gets locked out of her NYC apartment on a rainy day, ending up at her mom’s place where she finds her mom in disarray. We find out about Adam’s trickery– phoning up Eli with a lunch invitation to pretend distress over Denise having an affair with Carlos, the old ex-boyfriend, which freezes Eli into panic and causes Eli to break things off with Denise, playing perfectly into Adam’s hands.
In 1990, Denise has perished in a car crash in the Marin headlands. Josh is moving in with his lover, Henry. Swift’s ashes are transported to the island for dispersal by Lydia. Eli discovered that Carlos was a ruse, that he threw away his chance for love, but that Denise is dead.