I’m a sucker for the kind of novels that depict the unexpected, often supremely satisfying connections that can arise between and among strangers whose only obvious point of commonality is that they live at the same address. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels or Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series, for example, illustrate a kind of community that many city dwellers might find both slightly fantastic and surprisingly optimistic. Now Marian Keyes offers her own take on this genre with THE BRIGHTEST STAR IN THE SKY, a lovingly realized portrait of the lovelorn, searching, sometimes damaged strangers who inhabit 66 Star Street in Dublin and who don’t realize --- at least not at first --- that what they’re seeking is each other.
In the top floor flat, there’s Katie, a music executive who has just turned 40 and is convinced that this milestone birthday is her signal to get serious, to stop settling for the wrong men --- even when they’re rich, handsome and romantic like her current beau. Conall is a workaholic who continually lets Katie down, failing to attend important social engagements or help her around the house. When Katie and Conall split, they both find comfort in the arms of other inhabitants of 66 Star Street, but can’t quite forget each other.
One floor down lives two young Polish men and their petite (and verbally caustic) roommate, taxi driver Lydia. Andrei and Jan can’t stand each other --- they clash over fridge space, their respective boyfriend and girlfriends, and housekeeping duties --- but can attractive young men and women live together in such cramped quarters without something happening?
On the next floor down lives an old woman, Jemima, and her cranky dog. Jemima, a telephone psychic, is looking forward to just one thing: having her foster son, Fionn, come stay for an extended visit while he records a television show on gardening. But will the handsome Fionn’s magnetic personality wreak havoc with the young women of 66 Star Street?
Finally, on the ground floor lives the “old married couple” of Maeve and Matt. They’re still young and, by all accounts, very much in love, but the longer readers glimpse into their lives, the more apparent it is that there is something not quite right in Paradise.
Our guide behind the closed doors of Maeve and Matt’s lives, as well as into the flats of the other inhabitants of 66 Star Street, is an unnamed, unidentified narrator. The narrator moves freely among all the scenes and characters, drawing conclusions and making comments along with the reader. But who is this narrator? It becomes increasingly clear that he or she is under some kind of time pressure (chapters count backward from Day 61 to Day 0), that despite the narrator’s seeming omniscience, she or he has an intimate --- even urgent --- connection with one or more of the inhabitants of 66 Star Street, a connection that will change some residents’ lives forever.
The identity --- and mission --- of the unnamed narrator is hinted at early in the novel, but not made explicit until close to the end, when readers will be nearly as eager as the narrator to discover the outcome of the mission. This narrative device is not only a useful method for gaining entry into the various characters’ most intimate moments. It also serves to reinforce the readers’ own curiosity and, yes, voyeuristic tendencies, as we discover what happens behind the closed doors of people who could very well be our neighbors (except maybe younger and better looking).
Marian Keyes has gained a reputation for infusing darker material into what many would like to dismiss as “chick lit.” THE BRIGHTEST STAR IN THE SKY is no exception --- and just as readers will recognize the sense of anticipating that the “right” lovers end up together in the end, they’ll also feel a sense of unease as one of the several plot lines, in particular, seems destined for disaster. Fortunately, there’s plenty of bed-hopping and –swapping to keep the tone sufficiently light and the romance heated, even when the mood grows dark. By the end of the novel, readers will be ready to sign a lease for their own flat at 66 Star Street --- not just for proximity to the sexy neighbors but also for the sense of community they create there.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on Decembe