THE PATH OF MINOR PLANETS (Picador, 2001) by Andrew Sean Greer is a book about time. It's the story of how people might go away and then come back, how they change or how very little they change over that time.
The book opens in 1965 on the small island of Bukit in the South China Sea where a group of astronomers has gathered to witness the return of Comet Swift and the meteor shower it promises to bring with it. There are Eli and Kathy Spivak, Denise Lanham, Dr. Manday, Professor Jorgeson, Dr. Martin Swift, the discoverer of the comet twelve years earlier, and his 5-year-old daughter, Lydia. The occasion for this gathering is near perihelion, that moment when an object comes closest to the Sun. The mood is light, the tropical air is hot and bodies, the Earthly sort, move closer to each other in their own, needy perihelion. When the meteors become visible, the scientists take up their posts with excited shouts of "Time!" echoing from the observation deck of the sultan's castle high above the beach as they attempt a precise record of the shower. But when things change, when a small boy falls from the deck to his death far below, there is no record and everyone's lives, like the comet as it comes in contact with a larger celestial object, causing it to waver and wobble, will find their own orbits altered.
The second part of the book takes place in 1971, and a party at Swift's farmhouse to celebrate Comet Swift's near aphelion, the point at which an object is furthest from the Sun. It's a time of uncertainty, the comet possibly lost in space forever, a fact which won't be known for some time. The characters, six years older now, have changed and there is an air of uncertainty in many of their lives as well. They've grown, they've parted ways or had affairs or fallen in love. There is some talk of the boy who died on Bukit, but even exactly what happened that night is uncertain.
The story goes on this way, leapfrogging through the years, six years at a time, as the comet approaches and then recedes from Earth. It's a wonderful way to frame a story and Greer is adept at weaving his language from the scientific to the poetic. The relationships of the characters with each other come and go like the comet, and they are at just as much risk of exploding or fading away. There is loss and death and near misses. In the span of time, from 1965 to 1990, there are children born, friendships ended and rekindled, secrets found out and others kept for eternity.
I read THE PATH OF MINOR PLANETS while on vacation at the beach with an expanse of blue sky as a backdrop during the day and an untold number of stars against the black night. I absolutely love this book. Greer's storytelling is powerful enough to make us look to the sky and wonder at what might be there and to look within ourselves to see what it is we're made of.
(Andrew Sean Greer's new novel, THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS, comes out June 25, 2013. I'm a big fan and have enjoyed previous novels THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE. If you haven't read him, treat yourself today.)