If you’ve ever felt as though you’re living a life you weren’t supposed to live; if you’ve ever felt ashamed of your family; if you’ve ever felt that love is something reserved for fairy tales; if you’ve ever felt uncertain of the laws that govern your universe; heck, even if you’re just fascinated with astronomy; you are going to love George Bishop’s The Night of the Comet.
I haven’t read a book yet that’s more relatable and real than The Night of the Comet. From the first sentence, heartbreak, loss, love, family, and redemption dominate. At the start of the story, the narrator, Alan Broussard, Jr., a fourteen-year-old bookworm, receives a telescope from his father for his birthday. His father is giddy with excitement to share this “Mercedes-Benz of telescopes” with his son, who understands that the gift is his father’s way of trying to bond with him, but also questions if his father even knows him at all. Junior’s reaction? “As a parent, he was practically useless. Like the telescope – good for nothing.”
My heart sank as I read Junior’s reaction. Bishop paints the picture of Alan Broussard, Sr. so well, and he is just so happy to share this with his son, that it was disappointing and upsetting that Junior would have such a reaction. Junior, however, quickly finds a good use for the telescope when he has the revelation that he can use it to spy on his hot new neighbor, Gabriella Martello. He asks his parents over and over to tell the story of how they met and fell in love, thinking that he can glean from it what love is and what he’s supposed to do to get Gabriella to fall in love with him. Anyone who has been a lovelorn teenager with hopes of impressing a member of the opposite sex will feel right along with him as he undergoes the journey of adolescence, learning lessons about love, loss, rejection, and that teenage euphoria of a first kiss.
Junior is a bookworm, and Bishop presents one of the best bookworm descriptions I’ve read: “The only thing I had any affinity for – and I hardly considered this a talent – was reading. I was a reader, a bookworm […] I would read almost anything I could lay my hands on. Slumped in my bed or a corner of the couch with a good book, I’d look up and feel nothing but disappointment at my own world, so dull and colorless in comparison. If I could have, I would’ve gladly spent the rest of my life in books. Stories were my escape, my refuge, my consolation, my love.” This so completely describes how I feel about books, and I immediately identified with this character. The theme of being disappointed with the “real” world carries throughout the novel and reveals itself more fully in Junior’s parents.
Although Junior narrates the story, I was much more interested in his parents. My heart went out to Alan Broussard, Sr. from the first chapter. I felt so sorry for this aloof astronomer who gets so caught up in his science that he forgets the meaning of family. He is a teacher at the local high school who eagerly awaits the comet Kohoutek, and soon his entire existence revolves around the comet, which burns everything out of this poor man’s life. Lydia Broussard, the mother, dreams of a bigger, more luxurious life that she’s imagined for herself since she was a teenager, and their new neighbors across the canal, the Martellos, represent this life as they move into a house “so marvelous, so grand that it looked almost absurdly out of place there at the edge of our muddy bayou.” All the while, Alan, Sr. and Lydia grow farther apart as Alan turns his eyes to the sky and keeps his head in the clouds.
Every member of the Broussard family wishes for something they don’t have: Megan, Junior’s sister, wants to run away to New York; Junior wants Gabriella to be his girlfriend; Lydia wants a big Hollywood life; and Alan, Sr. wants to be a famous scientist. They go about their routines every day wishing they had something more. How many times have I felt the same way?
The characters reminded me of my own family growing up. I was a bookworm, just like Junior. My sister loved to sing, just like Megan. My mother always dreamed of a bigger, better life. And my father was just as oblivious to all this as Alan, Sr. I felt as though I was reading my own story as I read about Junior’s struggle with discovering that people run in different circles in life, and once you’re born into a circle, you must orbit in that circle forever, and about this family’s crumble under the weight of expectations. In the end, I felt like a part of the Broussard family. They are my family, actually.
Equally charming and heart wrenching, no one tells a story of all that we covet and all we can’t have, of the celestial bonds of family and love, of disgrace and redemption, quite like George Bishop.