When I heard about Lydia Netzer’s How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky on the Book Riot podcast, I could scarcely wait to get my hands on it. A book set in Ohio–my Ohio! There is, at least in my own reading experience, a lack of good books that are set in Ohio. I expected a book about two astrologists who fall madly in love, only to realize that that love had been planned out and charted by their mothers from their birth, to fill that void. Finally, a book with a crazy cool premise, set in Ohio. I expected to fall madly, passionately in love with the book.
It is often a product of having such high expectations for a book that you are almost inevitably disappointed when you meet the real thing. The book is raw, and real, and blunt in the best possible way. It is also coarse, unpleasant, and challenging to read. The entire journey had me asking “Do I like this? Am I liking this?” I still don’t know. I know it was not what I expected to find. I know that Netzer’s style is something different from a lot of books out there; I don’t know if I like the difference. The narration is occasionally scattered, the characters occasionally hard to like. And yes, maybe that’s life–scattered and hard to like, difficult and impossible to know whether you’re enjoying it or not from one moment to the next. In that way, perhaps, the book succeeds.
The strangeness of the book is sometimes hard to swallow; it is occasionally so bizarre and so far outside the normal that I was taken out of the story to stare bluntly at the craft. I felt, more often than I care to feel while reading, a sense of “This is trying to be different. Yes, here’s an effort to break out from the crowd.” Since I heard about it on the internet, bubbling up from all the other things that one might hear on the internet, I suppose maybe it has broken out from the crowd. But the raw and jagged pieces occasionally showed too much of their workings to resonate with me in the way that I, personally, prefer out of a book.
This is not to say that I am not glad I read it, or that I didn’t gain something from the book. Sometimes, the strangest things and the most outlandish situations can teach us something that resonates deeply. Irene’s fears of closeness, of physical intimacy, of letting that which is tender and human inside of her show, are fears that I understand. The impulse to stand on a bridge, looking down, and thinking “I could jump, but I won’t” is one that more of us understand than would admit to that understanding. In that way, the book did resonate with me. There were many real struggles for real characters. And then there were struggles I found less easy to relate to, things that did not seem to make sense. Perhaps I’m missing it, but still, that informs my experience.
To those who don’t want to be challenged by a book, thematically and graphically and linguistically, I would say that you should remain ignorant about How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky. It is a book to be grappled with, fought against, and occasionally wrenched through. Whether or not it is satisfying when it reaches its end, I’m still not sure. But the best books are the ones that linger on, making us continue to think about them after we’ve read the last page. And that, at least, I deem undeniably true for this book.