three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
49-Nov-Dec-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-Percivals PlanetMichael Byers, the author of the New York Times Notable Book novel Long for This World (2003) and the short story collection The Coast of Good Intentions (1998), teaches at the University of Michigan.

The Story: Percival Lowell dreamed of discovering Planet X, the ninth planet in our solar system. After his death, Clyde Tombaugh, a self-taught astronomer from Kansas, wowed the scientific world when he discovered Pluto. Percival's Planet follows a cast of scientists and dreamers, both real and imagined, who converge at Arizona's Lowell Observatory during the Great Depression: Alan Barber, a Harvard-educated man in love with his coworker's girlfriend; the mentally ill Mary Hempstead, who believes a horn is growing from the back of her head; her boyfriend Edward Howe, a former professional boxer; and the wealthy Felix DuPrie, who digs for dinosaur bones. Linked by the thrill of competition, discovery, and achievement, they are also, of course, bound together in their search for love.
Henry Holt. 432 pages. $27. ISBN: 9780805092189

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"Percival's Planet, a historical novel, set mainly in the 1930s, tells the true story of the search for Pluto and those looking for it as their lives swing slowly and surely into alignment. Michael Byers occasionally gets bogged down in his prodigious research, but his characters remain strong enough to pull you in." Keith Staskiewicz

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"What makes Percival's Planet so irresistible is a more down-to-earth human focus brought to the story through fictional characters and events. Byers has the rare ability to break a reader's heart practically from the moment each new character is introduced." Marc Covert

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The more technical passages, on the workings of an optical comparator (a measuring device used in astronomical research), the grinding of telescope disks, et al, can be tough going. Yet that blind spot won't obliterate the interlocking human drama that Percival's Planet captures so impressively--nor Byers' comprehension of how signal accomplishments, in space or on earth, are not usually the product of any one individual, but of the sacrifices, invention and fortunes of many." Misha Berson

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The protagonist of his acclaimed earlier novel, Long for This World, was a geneticist, and Byers has a gift for capturing the exhilaration of discovery. ... It seems churlish to complain about too many beautifully crafted characters and too many fascinating subplots, but as rewarding as the book is, it never quite coalesces." Shawna Seed

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"So what makes Percival's Planet such a sedentary, well-behaved tale? It seems as though Byers's ruminative temperament eclipses the natural drama of his story. He shuts down almost every opportunity for excitement." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

"Percival's Planet calculates the moral dimensions of scientific investigation," noted the Washington Post. It is this "breadth of Byers's field of vision [that] is a saving grace." If Byers's technical descriptions and research slowed down a few critics, they agreed that his wide scope--he tells many stories, with his characters exhibiting all-too-human motives and emotions--is his greatest success. A few felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of subplots, and the Washington Post thought that Byers's contemplative prose dulled an otherwise exciting tale. However, Byers' tale should be universally appealing--"just an endearing story of underdogs, both the ragtag crew of astronomers and the tiny celestial body they're hoping to find" (Entertainment Weekly).