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The Brightest Star in the Sky

The lives of 10 Dubliners collide and a sassy sprite struggles to meet a deadline in this darkly comic novel.

By Katie Ward / January 30, 2010

The Brightest Star in the Sky By Marian Keyes Viking 480 pp., $26.95

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The residents of 66 Star Street are about to undergo a transformation, thanks to a feisty sprite with a deadline in Marian Keyes’s dynamic, compelling novel, The Brightest Star in the Sky. We just don’t know who, when, or how.

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“The Brightest Star in the Sky” is an intricate tale of 10 Dubliners whose unrelated lives suddenly intertwine. The sprite, our narrator, has 61 days to accomplish what it came to do, but we don’t learn what that is until the antsy final pages of Day Zero. It’s this countdown to who-knows-what that drives the book’s complicated, “Love, Actually”-esque plot structure, and keeps the reader glued to every page.

Taxi driver Lydia hides an emotional disaster behind her unruly hair. As her mother, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, continues to decline, Lydia looks after her alone, unaided by her three chronically irresponsible brothers. Frustrated by village doctors who won’t acknowledge the problem, Lydia worries that she’s “too young for all of this.”

Meanwhile, her third-floor apartment offers no respite, since she shares it with Polish immigrants Andrei and Jan. The Poles try to endure Lydia, whom they see as an “evil little pixie” of a taxi driver who mocks them and refuses to clean, even as they struggle with homesickness.

Lydia’s bitter, foulmouthed sarcasm sparks hateful tension between her and Andrei, which abruptly morphs into wild sexual tension. But this doesn’t mean that she and Andrei get along – their mutual hatred just fuels their physical passion. Their postcoital conversations are something akin to, “I don’t get this: I hate you,” and “Me either. I hate you, too.”

In the apartment above, PR executive Katie Richmond has just celebrated her 40th birthday and, as she sees it, the demise of her youth. She’s begun to feel too old for her job micromanaging rockstars, though she loves the paycheck and 38 pairs of Louboutins that go with it. However, her relationship with wealthy workaholic Conall Hathaway needs help.

Conall is a cutthroat businessman who makes an excellent wage restructuring bought-out companies. Though he genuinely loves Katie, she needs him to be more dependable than successful. But, welded to his job, he sacrifices love by breaking promises and cancelling commitments left and right. When he chooses work over Katie in her hour of need, she breaks up with him and forces them both to reevaluate their priorities.

On the second floor we find Jemima, an elderly woman who lives alone with a colossal, surly dog named Grudge. The two keep to themselves in the dark, solidly furnished apartment where Jemima works part time as a psychic hot-line operator under the name of Mystic Maureen.

When Jemima’s foster son, Fionn, is plucked from his village to host a gardening TV show in Dublin, he decides to stay with her. Fionn’s arrival makes quite the impact – he is charmingly childlike and wants everyone to love him.

Although heartbreakingly beautiful, the disarming 30-something’s one true love is his garden. Best example: a man comes to his house in the village and makes a scene because he thinks that Fionn slept with his wife. The man breaks a window and musses up the potato patch. Fionn’s response: “No real harm had been done, but the incident had distressed the plants and Fionn couldn’t be doing with that.”

This free-spirited country Adonis soon proves as green as the plants he loves. Fionn rapidly falls in and out of love with three women in the building. One reacts with disdain, the second with passion, and the third, Maeve, with terror.

Maeve and her husband, Matt, have a quiet, peaceful home on the ground floor. To the outside, the only problem is Matt’s job in office systems sales, namely one indecisive client whose choice could make or break Matt’s career. Yet there’s a dark secret lurking behind their loving routine: something in the history of their fairy-tale love causes Maeve to suffer panic attacks and Matt to dream of suicide.

Matt’s attempt to kill himself is the catalyst, rocketing the isolated plotlines into orbit around one another. It’s at this point that Keyes’s writing, frankly cryptic up until this point, becomes artful. When Matt hits rock bottom, it’s a central disaster that eventually involves every character. Their disparate lives start to interweave and everyone hits crisis point. Because of this one isolated event, 10 people’s lives change and our narrating sprite zeroes in on its mission.

Keyes executes these crucial moments with finesse, rounding the corner from complicated to exquisite. Her commentary on Alzheimer’s and rape feels dignified and respectful, not melodramatic. 66 Star Street undergoes contortions but its residents emerge as better versions of themselves, and the revelation of the sassy sprite’s mission is a striking “aha” moment.

“The Brightest Star in the Sky” is a well-crafted novel with engaging characters and a gripping plot. What more could you ask?

Katie Ward was an intern at the Monitor.

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