Review: Novel about search for Pluto fails to soar

New York: For a historical novel about the search for Pluto, "Percival`s Planet" is a strangely earthbound book — a long, dry ramble through Depression-era America likely to frustrate readers expecting an exciting tale of man`s skyward longing.

Michael Byers` timing is good for a book about Pluto. The release of "Percival`s Planet" coincides with the 80th anniversary of Pluto`s discovery, and comes just four years after the International Astronomical Union made headlines worldwide by demoting it to the status of dwarf planet.

Byers is the author of two previous books, the well-regarded story collection "The Coast of Good Intentions" and the novel "Long for This World," a family saga and medical drama that continues to deserve a wider readership. But he stumbles here, miring "Percival`s Planet" in superfluous characters and subplots, and never bothering to put the search for what astronomers in the 1920s called "Planet X" into any sort of larger context.

"Percival`s Planet" is largely the fictionalized story of a real person, Clyde Tombaugh, who first spotted Planet X in 1930 while working at New Mexico`s Lowell Observatory. At the start of the book a Kansas teenager longing for escape from his family`s modest means, Tombaugh is an amateur astronomer and telescope builder who sells his ever-more-sophisticated devices to a particularly charitable uncle in hopes of earning money for college.

Tombaugh`s journey from unhappy farm kid to discoverer of Pluto is the heart of the book, but any time that part of the story starts to gather momentum, Byers cuts to his large supporting cast of people in Tombaugh`s orbit — mostly fictional creations that allow him to explore varied topics such as the 1920s-era state of dinosaur hunting, professional boxing, treatment of the mentally ill, homosexuality and class struggles.

None of these are unworthy subjects, but their exploration here is likely to prompt more than a few readers to ask, what about Pluto? Byers is a graceful and empathetic writer, but way too many chapters are comprised mainly of a plodding narration lacking in much wit or spark.

When Byers does offer up the rare set piece, such as an ill-fated boat trip off the western coast of Mexico or a disastrous dinner party hosted by the clueless widow of Planet X`s original pursuer, the book briefly gets more entertaining and vibrant; you`ll find yourself wishing for more of it.

The media kit for "Percival`s Planet" reports that Byers spent five years researching the book, but when he actually does get around to writing about astronomy he tends to dwell on boring details — the mechanics of telescopes, the mathematics of calculating planetary mass. Upon finishing the novel, it`s difficult to answer what should have been a few of the book`s chief concerns: Why did Clyde Tombaugh care so much about astronomy? Why was the search for a ninth planet so important at that point in history?

Seems like there`d be a great book in those questions. Unfortunately, "Percival`s Planet" isn`t really it.

Bureau Report

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