My rating: 4 of 5 stars
For some reason, this is a hard one to review. Maybe because I'm still not sure what *actually* happened in this book, or because the narrators changed every few pages? Maybe because it's character-driven instead of being plot-driven? Despite the fact that this story is built around a mission to Mars, the primary focus of each person's inner narrative is relationship: that between a parent and a child, and that between two people in general. There is also a focus on the idea of one's true self - how do your find yourself? What is actually true about you, and who gets to decide that?
Helen and Mireille have a complicated relationship, one that has in many ways been shaped by Helen's deceased husband, who was Mireille's primary caregiver until his death. Helen and her husband's relationship itself was very complicated - it sounds like Helen was desperate for companionship, but found herself lacking, and she found the one person who said he loved her, despite all the flaws he consistently pointed out. Going into their marriage, Helen knew her husband wanted a child, and that is the main reason Mireille was born in the first place. I think she was surprised to find how much she loved the baby, and wanted to spend time with her, but soon enough, her husband established himself as The Parent, and Helen was left to follow her plan of becoming an astronaut. Mireille grew up living with her father's version of her mother, and always felt like her mother didn't love her enough. She felt continually overshadowed by her mother's achievements, and worried that at the end of her life, the only special thing about her would be that she's her mother's daughter, so she jumps into that role with gusto, performing it to the best of her abilities.
Where Helen lacked emotion, Mireille had an overabundance of it, and her father encouraged that in her. When you're constantly performing, though, it's hard to know who you are, and harder still for anyone to know the real you. Throughout this book, Helen and Mireille go through parallel journeys of self-discovery, symbolized by each of them cutting off their hair, or the weight of the past that has held them back. Helen has a near-death experience on "Mars" and comes out of it a suddenly much more open person. She's less focused on keeping her cool and flipping her emotions to the positive, and more about finding out what is true about herself. Mireille also has an awakening of sorts - maybe it's find a job she truly enjoys, maybe it's the forced distance from her mom giving her a new perspective. I loved what she said, though, about deciding to stop blaming her mom: "At a certain point, you probably had to stop thinking about what your mother did or didn't do to you, and start thinking about what you did or didn't do to your mother."
Sergei and his son Dmitri's relationship was also complicated, but mostly because of lack of communication. Sergei has lived his life trying to be the opposite of his own father, who bullied him and called him names, and drove his sister into an anger-fueled life separate from the rest of their family. His goal as a father has always been to be a kind, loving role-model to his boys. From Dmitri's perspective, though, he himself was never that special, never as deserving of love as his father or his prodigy brother. His defining characteristic seems to be "beautiful," and even though he suspects he might be gay, he isn't willing to admit it because he doesn't want the only thing interesting about him to be his sexuality. I don't blame him for that. What Dmitri doesn't realize, though, is that his father loves him, no matter what, and all he wants is to be loved in return. It's not complicated.
Yoshi and Madoka's relationship is perhaps the most intriguing. Yoshi obviously loves Madoka a lot, while Madoka seems oddly cold and aloof from their relationship. One of Madoka's issues is that she doesn't know who she is, and she's doesn't know how to figure that out. She doesn't think Yoshi really loves the true her because she doesn't think he really sees the real her, but she doesn't have proof that's not true, so she just continues to go along with it, ad infinitum. At one point, Madoka says "...aren't we all pretending to be who we really are?" And that really seems to be the case, both for Madoka specifically and the real of the characters as a whole. Her reasons for not wanting to be a mom are born in the fact that she doesn't need another thing to remind herself of her lack of importance in the world.
Through their separation, and his exposure to Helen's transformation, Yoshi himself comes to realize some big, true things about his relationship with Madoka. He has always loved her so much that he was almost in awe of her - she was his whole world, his personal planet. The problem, he comes to realize, is that he loved a dream, a version of Madoka he had built in his head, so much that he hadn't seen any other part of her, or truly gotten to know her. In his final letter to her, he asks,"Would you rather I love you incorrectly forever, or correctly but potentially less?" I'm pretty sure we all know Madoka's answer to that: see me and love me correctly, even if it's less.
So, I have to guess that the big debate of this novel is: Did they actually go to Mars? Was the whole "training" plan a scheme of sorts to try and keep the pressure off the astronauts and their families and possible failure off the media radar, if anything happened? The first thing that clued me in that something might be out of order was when the astronauts woke up puking and disoriented, and couldn't figure out how they could have staged such a thing. And of course, you have Sergei's few seconds of SIM failure on "Mars" during the dust devil - what did he really see? Was it an isolation-fueled hallucination? I'm sure there is evidence on either side (I haven't looked yet), but I'm definitely on Team Mars. It's so much money and time to waste to do a training like that, and it just didn't really make sense in the first place. Part of me wishes the author would have told us specifically what happened at the end of the book - we don't even know if the astronauts survived the "landing" or not! But most of me realizes that this book wasn't about space travel in the first place. Like Helen said early on, "...What is true does not always feel like what is true."
Here are some other lines from the book I specifically enjoyed:
Helen"If you try to jab your fingers all stiff through cornstarch and water you'll encounter a solid. But if you sink and melt your hands on the surface, you'll move right through it. So that's what you gotta do. You gotta tell your hands to sink and melt. Sink and melt."
"Also, when she has an "emotion" she should take a moment to "flip it." I really don't want to have to deal with poop right now needs to become I'm glad that all I have to deal with right now is a little poop."
"It's another reason why you had to be so careful with grief. It was like an impact crater, its surface always larger than the thing that created it."
Sergei"I know that the only thing that matters with parent and child is how much parent loves child. Child does not have to love you back. But this can only be borne by truly strong people. I am too weak not to care if you love me."
Yoshi"Trusting a person and knowing a person were not the same things. It was necessary that Helen and Sergei trust him completely. It was not necessary that they know him to the same extent."
"Yoshi does not ask for much, he merely wants to be where he should be, where he belongs, which is something you can know by orienting yourself to what is around you, and making yourself a part of it."
"They rotate around a barycenter between them. Looking only at one piece of each other." (Pluto and Charon)
Madoka"That probably sounds horrible," Mireille says. "I mean, my using it. Like I'm cashing in on an emotion that isn't mine." Madoka thinks. It doesn't sound horrible to her, but possibly she's not the right person to judge this. "How is the emotion not yours?" she asks. "If it makes you sad?"
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