Rom-Com Love in a Literary Novel — and It Works

by Rebecca Kelley

In How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky (St. Martin’s Press), Lydia Netzer delivers an original, quirky love story, glittering with stars and teeming with humor and some really wacky sex scenes.

Meet Irene Sparks, the cool-headed scientist. She has just discovered how to make black holes in a laboratory, and, miles away in Toledo, her mother has fallen down a flight of stairs and died. Next, meet George Dermont, the nutty professor and cosmologist at the Toledo Institute of Technology. He has piercing headaches and elaborate visions of gods and goddesses. He has conversations with them; they help him with his work.

Right from the book’s opening pages, we know these two are meant to meet and fall in love. From the prologue:

As for the twin souls of George and Irene, this is their story. How they met on earth, and how they slept and practiced for their deaths, night after night, and met in certain dreams, and came to love and lose each other, and live on.

The pair's mothers, friends since childhood, had conspired to bring them to this earth to find the other and recognize each other as kindred spirits. By their design, the mothers gave birth on the same day — November 11 — an especially auspicious day for creating twin souls. They would raise the children to be best friends as youngsters, teach them the same songs, feed them the same memories, and encourage them to cultivate the same interests. Then, before George and Irene’s memories could solidify, their mothers would separate them, with the hope that years later, they would reunite and fall in love. That’s just science, after all, they figured. Of course, designing soul mates is not an easy task, and not everything goes according to plan.

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky is about love, mostly, but it’s also about science. It’s about destiny and fate, astronomy and astrology, and mothers and children. Oh, and lucid dreaming, astral projection, video games, and a “girl who was raised a mute.” Lydia Netzer’s gift as a writer is that she manages to combine these outlandish, disparate ingredients (only some of which, individually, sound like they belong in a literary novel), and create something wholly readable and entertaining.

The book is a quick, engrossing read that’s hard to classify. Toledo doesn't fit neatly in a science fiction, speculative fiction, or magical realism box, though Netzer borrows from all of those traditions. She has a distinct, humorous style and voice that transcends genre, but if pressed to find a likely comparison, Aimee Bender's works would fit. Fans of An Invisible Sign of My Own, take note.

The love under the microscope in this novel is the rom-com kind of love: love-at-first-sight love, soul-mate love, destiny love. It’s refreshing to see a treatment of this kind of love in a literary work. So often these initial, fluttery love feelings get dismissed as silly, girly, or not real. No, real love (serious books say) is about a lifetime of commitment, sticking it out through thick and thin, in sickness and in health. Toledo contains a dash of that kind of love, too, but the focus veers more toward the initial part, that first ineffable spark that makes us start to believe in it.

“Why do some people fall in love with each other, and others don’t? What is love?” the book asks, over and over again. It’s the book’s main refrain, insistent and heartfelt. “It’s so, so, so stupid right up until it’s real. And then it’s the most important thing in the world, whether you believe in it or not.”