Book Review: Percival's Planet

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Do you ever look up at the night sky and wonder …What else is out there? What’s left to discover in all those stars? What will they find in space in my lifetime? If so, you might enjoy reading Percival’s Planet, the new novel by Michael Byers.

Combining astronomy with a glimpse into 1930’s society, Byers spent five years researching every last detail for Percival’s Planet in order to successfully blend historical figures and facts with a supporting cast of fictional characters and subplots in a story which is ultimately about the discovery of Pluto.

The novel takes its name from Percival Lowell, an early 20th century astronomer who was highly ridiculed in his unsuccessful search for a planet beyond Neptune, which he named Planet X. Byers’ story re-imagines the early years of Clyde Tombaugh, a real-life, uneducated farm boy and amateur astronomer from Kansas who lucked into a job at Lowell Observatory and amazingly discovered Planet X (Pluto) in 1930.

The fictional characters woven into Percival’s Planet include Harvard astronomers Dick Morrow and Alan Barber, who both precede Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory in looking for Planet X and who want to marry the same woman; Edward Howe, an over-the-hill boxer who is deeply in love with his mentally ill secretary, Mary, and follows her to Lowell Observatory in hopes of saving her sanity; Mary’s homosexual brother, Hollis, who disappears mysteriously from a train on his way to the Observatory; and Felix Duprie, an East Coast multi-millionaire with no vocational direction until he decides he wants to spend his life and money in Flagstaff, Arizona, near Lowell Observatory, discovering and excavating dinosaur bones.

Admittedly, each of these characters and their background stories is strange and could have made the story feel disjointed, but put together on the pages, they fit together like a human jigsaw puzzle that, when complete, injects needed emotion, empathy, and caring into an otherwise systematic and logical book. Since most of the novel takes place in 1930, these characters also help spotlight social issues and reactions from the dreary, Depression-era setting and allow us to better understand the hardships, morals and thoughts of American society during that time.

Overall, there are many things to enjoy about Percival’s Planet. The writing style is lyrical with many beautiful descriptive passages. The historical aspect is fascinating, and the characters are often bigger than life.

Weaknesses include a few sections where the book bogs down with an abundance of scientific jargon and areas where plot evolution is slow to come together. However, neither of these things is a reason to put down the book.

Just remember that Percival’s Planet is not a quick weekend read. It is a novel to be savored slowly and methodically. It is also a story filled with well developed characters, great details about the discovery of Pluto and an interesting peek into the culture and people of Depression-era America.


About the Author

Amy Morris

Amy Morris is a technical assistant at the Westport Branch. She earned a B.A. in English, with an emphasis in creative writing, from Avila University. Besides reading and writing, Amy enjoys traveling, art, being creative, and spending time with her family.