Terrestrial bodies look to the sky

The cycles of a new comet provide the structure for this debut novel

For an astronomer, describing a single body in motion is simple. And calculating the interaction of two objects is as easy as pi. But 300 years after Sir Isaac Newton's equations on gravity, the interaction of three bodies still baffles the best mathematicians.

For problems like that, call a novelist. They've been writing about the interaction of bodies since the apple bonked Newton.

Perhaps none has blended the worlds of astronomy and romance so stunningly as Andrew Greer. His debut novel, "The Path of Small Planets," traces the lives of several scientists connected with a newly discovered comet.

We meet them in 1965, when Dr. Swift and his colleagues and graduate students gather on a small island in the South Pacific to view his comet and its attendant meteor shower. The warm air is thick with mosquitoes and egotism. The scientists smirk at the natives and their primitive anxiety about omens streaking across the sky.

Just as the first sparks appear above them, a young boy falls from the observation deck to his death. For these students of physics, the accident is an equation with brutal implications: "They were scientists," Greer writes, "and could turn life into a laboratory setting, control every aspect so that it pointed toward an answer. A crowd of artists, of dancers, of poets could never have blamed themselves for terrible chance, but these scientists thought they held chance firmly in their grip."

This inexplicable tragedy alters the trajectory of their lives in ways none of them could predict. Greer's strategy for observing these changes is to visit the scientists and their loved ones every six years, as they continue to gather to celebrate the comet's appearance.

Survivors of "Same Time Next Year," take heart: In Greer's hands, this periodic form seems entirely natural, even cosmic, placing us in the position of that frozen ball of dust that races by the blue planet. Each pass offers another sighting of brilliant people baffled by the calculus of romance.

These star-crossed lovers find themselves strangely handicapped by the very intelligence that makes them such remarkable scientists. Dr. Swift's star student, Denise, spent her youth absorbed in the sky, an escape from the terrors of adolescence, but "her heart had little room for anyone," Greer writes. "It was too crammed with stars."

Now, at 25, she finds herself prone to the foolish, self-destructive passions she should have worked out in her teens. "What could her life have been?" she wonders. "Dances, coy looks, unwanted advances? Instead of stars?"

Impulsively, she marries a pleasant but pedestrian novelist who can't share her celestial interests or succeed in his own sphere. The person she truly loves is Eli, her best friend's husband, a fellow astronomer who suffered the same truncated childhood and accelerated maturity in the pursuit of intellectual development.

Eventually, Denise and Eli have an affair under the guise of discovering their own comet, but what they really discover is that a relationship involving the betrayal of people who love them brings no lasting satisfaction. The book's most moving passages follow the faint breezes of resentment and loneliness that blow through a good marriage.

As the years pass, Greer moves on to the children of these scientists, young people strangely wounded by the thin atmosphere of affection in their scientific homes. Dr. Swift's daughter lives between the fear that she isn't sufficiently intellectual and the dread of becoming like her father's nerdy colleagues. Denise's son, like all the faculty children, must compete with the stars.

Greer attracted critical praise last year for his first collection of short stories, "How It Was For Me." This first novel displays the same startlingly clever phrasing and a careful sensitivity with a wide range of characters - young and old, male and female, scientists and their artistic spouses.

Despite his remarkably wise insight into the nature of marriage and friendship, there's a certain chilliness to his portrayal that reminds us that we're always looking at these characters through a microscope. His own voice, polished to such luminescence, remains the most passionate object in this haunting universe.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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