Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Wednesday, February 20, 2019: Maximum Shelf: Star-Crossed

Crown Publishing Group: Star-Crossed by Minnie Darke

Crown Publishing Group: Star-Crossed by Minnie Darke

Crown Publishing Group: Star-Crossed by Minnie Darke

Crown Publishing Group: Star-Crossed by Minnie Darke


by Minnie Darke

For thousands of years, human beings have watched the stars--to observe their beauty, to navigate across uncharted oceans, and (sometimes) to seek guidance for important decisions. But do the stars truly affect our lives? Does a person's zodiac sign determine his or her personality and fate, or are human beings the masters of our own destinies? Australian novelist Minnie Darke takes a playful approach to these questions--and the havoc that sometimes results from pursuing them--in her big-hearted and witty debut, aptly titled Star-Crossed.

Darke's novel centers on Justine (Sagittarius, possessed of a near-photographic memory, thoroughgoing star skeptic) and Nick (dreamy Aquarius, struggling actor, true believer). Born nine months apart to mothers who were best friends, the two spent their childhoods together, but lost touch after Nick's family moved across the country. Darke sets up this shared history in a few breezy chapters, then leaps ahead to when Justine's and Nick's orbits overlap again in their 20s. Now, Justine is an aspiring reporter at a quirky monthly magazine, the Alexandria Park Star. She's fetching coffee and making copies while hoping to climb the journalistic ladder. Meanwhile, Nick--despite scraping together the rent with acting gigs such as impersonating a large bell pepper--has just landed the lead role in a local avant-garde Shakespeare production (Romeo and Juliet, naturally). While he's delighted to see Justine, he also harbors a deep curiosity about Justine's co-worker, the reclusive astrologer Leo Thornbury, whose columns provide (Nick believes) spookily accurate guidance for his life. Peppered with amusing parenthetical asides and spot-on details like Justine's penchant for correcting misspelled produce signs ("advocados"), Darke's writing is both keen-eyed and just plain fun to read.

As the two reconnect and become friends, then neighbors, Justine teases Nick about his dedication to following Leo's advice. But when she's suddenly promoted (in accordance with her own horoscope) and her new responsibilities include typesetting Leo's columns (faxed from his remote island residence), Justine wonders if there's any harm in tweaking his advice, just a little. Her eventual decision to take (some) starry matters into her own hands will have a domino-like effect on not only Nick and his choices, but on the people--some known to him, some not--affected by his actions. Unbeknownst to either of them are the decisions of other Star readers who peruse, and sometimes follow, Leo's counsel for their own lives.

Darke charts her characters' movements, star-directed and otherwise, with warmth and compassion, playing with the stereotypes of various star signs but also allowing (some) characters to go beyond them. Justine's colleagues at the magazine, whose star signs are as varied as their personalities, are a quirky, entertaining crowd, except for her new boss, Daniel (a good-looking Leo), whose presence may spell trouble. The supporting casts in Justine's and Nick's personal lives are also engaging: their respective mothers; Justine's loudmouthed but good-hearted best friend Tara (a Taurus); Nick's sleek, driven, terrifyingly polished model girlfriend (a classic Capricorn). Readers will also find Justine and Nick utterly charming, especially when they banter across their balconies with the ease of long friendship spiked with new attraction, or when Justine engages in (slightly zany but completely relatable) mental arguments with herself.

As the planets and Darke's story continue to spin, she expertly connects various characters who are unknown to either Justine or Nick: a popular singer-songwriter searching for her next hit; a young male midwife hopelessly in love with a wealthy, divorced oncologist; a successful but lonely florist (perfectly named Fern). She skillfully reveals their feelings about the stars (ranging from near-reverence to amusement to total disregard) and the ways in which their lives are intertwined, whether they ever know it or not. Darke even pulls back the curtain briefly on the enigmatic Leo Thornbury himself, giving readers a glimpse of him typing his monthly column under (what else?) a glass ceiling showcasing the night sky.  

While Star-Crossed is more than a simple love story, it's clear from the first pages that Darke always comes down on the side of love: familial, romantic, the bonds of true friendship. Many of her characters are either nursing broken hearts or hoping for the right person to come along, and quite a few of them get their happy endings--though not without some mischief and missed connections along the way.

Darke plays with profound questions of destiny and free will, but throws in highly entertaining moments such as the Star's elaborate Halloween bash, the adventures of a stray but savvy street terrier named Brown Houdini-Malarky, and an outdoor production of Romeo and Juliet (not Nick's) gone horribly wrong on New Year's Eve. Star-Crossed will not only keep readers engaged, but make them wonder about the interplay of destiny, decisions and pure luck (with a little stardust thrown in). Readers will perhaps agree with Nick and Daniel that Justine's "editing" of Leo's horoscopes was impulsive at best, but they may also find themselves concurring with Jeremy, Justine's kindhearted editor, that fortune does, in fact, favor the bold. --Katie Noah Gibson

Crown, $26, hardcover, 368p., 9781984822826, May 21, 2019

Crown Publishing Group: Star-Crossed by Minnie Darke

Minnie Darke: Written in the Stars

(photo: Karen Brown)

Minnie Darke is a Gemini, a cutthroat Scrabble player and a lover of books, knitting, freshly sharpened pencils and Russian Caravan tea. She lives in Tasmania, off the south coast of Australia. Star-Crossed, coming from Crown on May 21, is her first novel.

What inspired you to write a novel focused on astrology and the stars?

The idea for the novel came to me quite a long time ago, when I was a journalist at a small newspaper. Because the staff were few, and it was handy for everyone to be able to make changes to the paper right up until deadline, I had a login that gave me access to the entire publication. I was working late one night when I had the idea that I could, if I wanted to, fiddle about with the astrology column. Hmmm, I thought. I could make the entries spookily relevant to my friends' lives, or perhaps take a hand--invisibly--in their decisions. I'm not saying I definitely ever did any of that, but it was a seductive idea. It was also, I thought, a good basis for a novel.

It was quite a while, decades in fact, before I actually sat down and wrote Star-Crossed. In those intervening years, I learned that even people who aren't "into" astrology tend to know their own sun sign, and the basic stereotypes that go along with it. For a lot of people, their star sign is part of what they consider to be their identity, and they'll glance at their horoscope if they come upon it in a newspaper or magazine--even if they don't take astrology even vaguely seriously.

We humans are reliably interested in questions of fate. Are we living out a preordained pattern? Or are we just drifting, bumbling along? We know that there are forces acting on us all the time, but are some of them as far away as the stars? Could these forces be known, and therefore harnessed in the service of our dreams? These are all interesting questions.

Star-Crossed is mainly Justine and Nick's story, but there are lots of other overlapping and intertwined narrative threads, which connect in surprising ways. How did you keep track of all the different characters and their potential effects on each other's lives?

If you think about it, most of us pretty easily keep track of all the people in our lives, and we keep in our brains a mental map of how those people intersect. We tend to know a bit about those people's parents, friends, siblings, children, pets, co-workers and so on. Being a writer just involves doing that in more than one reality at once. A lot of the invisible background work of writing fiction is what might be called daydreaming, but is actually the important job of living amongst your characters. So, primarily I just moved part of my mind into the world of Star-Crossed. The design of the plot, however, did take a lot of planning. I confess that many whiteboard markers died in the making of Star-Crossed.

Justine is a Sagittarian skeptic and Nick is a true-believer Aquarius. Many of the other characters, no matter their signs, fall somewhere in between. What about you? What's your relationship with the stars?

I don't know if I believe in astrology, but I certainly like it. I like the way people enjoy fulfilling, and also confounding, the stereotypes of their sign. And I like the way people use astrology to understand others and their relationships. Just as humans like to seek out systems of meaning, we're also pretty interested in classificatory systems. We like to put ourselves in categories--whether we're using the ancient notion of the four humours, or taking a Myers-Briggs questionnaire. 

As classificatory systems go, astrology is pretty good fun, and I think I learned this from my grandmother. She kept two very well-thumbed and dog-eared books on a shelf near her favourite chair. One was her crossword puzzle dictionary and the other was a copy of Linda Goodman's Sun Signs. She was a great one for saying things like, "Oh, your grandfather's just being a miserly old Capricorn." Or, "Your dad's not one for risks; he's a Cancerian after all." She was a nurse, and a classic Virgo--always ready to patch up people's ailments, and to take a close interest in their personal affairs.

The novel is lighthearted, but it asks big questions about decisions, fate and the surprising twists our lives often take. What are your thoughts on the relationship between decisions, free will and destiny?

One of the things I love about being a writer, as opposed to being a philosopher or a politician, is that it's not my job to come up with answers or solutions to tricky questions. My job--and I think it's the best job of all--is just to keep asking those tricky questions in new and hopefully entertaining ways. Perhaps the way the plot of Star-Crossed resolves at the end suggests that there is such a thing as fate, or destiny. Or, perhaps Star-Crossed is simply a depiction of a series of events that take place in a world full of lucky, random chaos. It really will be up to the reader to decide.

What is certain is what I mentioned before, that humans--some much more than others--are driven to seek systems of meaning. As a species, we really like the idea that if only we could understand the forces that act on us, we could predict the ways in which things will turn out, and pick out providential pathways for ourselves. Astrology appeals to that part of us, whether or not we fully and seriously believe in it.

I'd like readers to know that Star-Crossed was written in a spirit of joy and mischief, and I hope with all my heart that they will be amused, moved, uplifted and entertained by it. --Katie Noah Gibson

Powered by: Xtenit