Book review: Star-crossed by Minnie Darke

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Are our lives governed by fate or free choice?

It’s a weighty question, one that pops up in religious and philosophical reasoning far more than it doesn’t and for good reason – a great many of us want to know whether we are responsible for our actions or can happily leave any and all responsibility to the universe, gods, or, in the case of Minnie Darke’s delightful Australian romantic comedy, Star-crossed, the stars.

While the division between the two schools of thought is far from even, more people than thought seem to favour the idea that we can happily hand over our lives to powers beyond ourselves, in everything from which job offer we should accept, who we should pursue in matters of the heart, and even which parking spot we should choose (something that was quite in vogue, and may well still be, in ’80s evangelical Australia).

One of those adherents is Nick Jordan, a handsome mid-twenties actor who struggling to make this mark in the thespian world and who isn’t entirely sure, read: very unsure, about whether he should continue his on again-off again relationship with stunningly beautiful, assured model Laura Mitchell.

It might seem like he is in pole position life-wise, the success of his various endeavours notwithstanding, but Nick has been a believer in the power of astrology to guide him since he was a kid and that belief continues unwaveringly to this day with the wannabe acting star continuing to be guided by the supposedly sage words of one Leo Thornbury, longtime astrologer at the Alexandria Park Gazette.

“Time passed. Moons orbited planets. Planets did laps around the brightest stars. Galaxies swirled. And, as the years went by, more and more satellites joined in. Then one day, as if by magic, there she was: twenty-six-year-old Justine Carmichael, making her way with an unsteady load of coffee cups along a leafy suburban street on a Friday morning in March. She wore a cheerful swing dress of green and white polka-dot linen and nearly white sneakers that caught the sunshine and shadow of the light-dappled pavement as she walked.” (P. 11)

In stark contrast to Nick’s unquestioning belief in “his one little sprinkling of magic in an otherwise pragmatic world”, his childhood friend, aspiring journalist at the Alexandria Park Gazette, Juliet  Carmichael, who continues to languish, well some what anyway (she actually likes where works and who she works with) in the role of copyrunner, is a staunch believer in the power of free choice.

You make the mistakes, you own them, might be her mantra although being a reasonably upbeat person she is likely more inclined to celebrate her successes which, to the lonely, now best friend-less young woman (BFF Tara is off being a successful journo with the ABC), who is only 10 months younger than Nick (their mothers were best friends back in their hometown of Edenvale) feel a little thin on the ground as Darke’s enrapturing story begins its twisty, turny rom-com path to a hoped-for ever after.

When Juliet meets Nick quite by chance, neither having any idea they were now living in the same place after twelve or so years with no contact, there is an almost palpable sense on both sides that this means something, especially since they had, in their teenage years, dallied with a very short, limited romance.

But being typical human beings and afraid to take a step that may not work out, both dither in the grey surrounds of indecision, with Nick seeking guidance from his monthly Thornbury-penned astrological advice and Juliet trying to decide whether what she’s feeling is actually what she’s feeling and whether it should be acted on.

Deciding that it most definitely should, she begins to change the advice given by Thornbury for Aquarius, Nick’s star sign, in the hope of persuading him to take the initiative and pursue a relationship with her.

Minnie Darke (image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Naturally though, this being life and a romantic comedy, the path of true love does not run smooth – Shakespeare features quite heavily in Star-crossed which makes sense given Nick’s thespian ambitions – and Juliet’s astrological meddling gives rise to all kinds of messy, heartbreaking and hilarious complications, not just for her and Nick but for a host of readers, who, whether permanently or in the spur of the moment, decide that free will is vastly overrated and the stars should take the steering wheel, at least for this or that pressing, major life decision.

Darke weaves these shorts but emotionally punchy tales deftly into the overall story of Nick and Juliet, with each person brought vividly to life with an expositional elegance that is a delight to behold.

In a matter of a few sentences we know who these people are, what matters to them and why some astrological help might not go astray at that point, weighted down as they are by decisions so weighty and overwhelming that generating any kind of forward momentum seems to be quite beyond them.

Linking their stories together, Love, Actually-style, even if only briefly or tangentially, Darke creates a delightfully moving tapestry of vastly divergent lives, all of which share the common need to feel some sense of meaning or belonging in a world where it is often in short supply and where divining what form it should take can feel next to impossible.

These affecting portraits of humanity, which come with a real emotional resonance, and depth of understanding and empathy for the vagaries and quirks of the human condition, add an immeasurably depth to Star-crossed, a novel already brimming with a substantial appreciation for the complexities and difficulties of life and the driving need we all seem to have to make the most of things.

“Although he was sweating beneath his body paint, and although toffee apples can be frustrating things to bite into, Nick Jordan knew that he was inside a moment that he was likely to remember. He had learned to recognise these moments: the ones in which time seemed to slow and his senses became acute, in which he wasn’t wanting anything or rushing anywhere, or thinking forwards or backwards. He was simply in that moment, and the moment was good.” (P. 295)

Put simply, Star-crossed is a gem of a romantic comedy, written so beautifully and with such a beguiling mix of whimsy and life truths that it is up there with the very best of the genre, a novel that captures the vexing nature of life in all its promising and scary wonder.

Neither side of the fate vs. free will side are pilloried or made fun of, with Darke evenly (though there is a predisposition it seems to astrology, with elements of the belief system woven playfully yet meaningfully into everything from big decisions to character sketches) handling both schools of thought as Nick and Juliet clumsily and awkwardly find their way to each other (not a spoiler; remember, this is a romantic comedy and a damn good one at that).

At its heart, Star-crossed is a love letter to the need all of us have to be connected to one another and to find purpose in life, an impelling need that is constantly thwarted by the diabolical difficulties of knowing which sliding door is the one we should step through.

There is likely no perfect answer for many of us though it becomes patently clear that there is, of course, for Nick and Juliet who are asked to follow their hearts and to listen to that inner voice which, more often than not, is right when it comes to those big, towering decision we all have to make at some point or another.

Star-crossed is a supreme delight, arguing that when it comes down to it, scary and profoundly complex though they might seem, decisions aren’t actually all that hard to make, regardless of where you turn to for guidance, if we just listen to our hearts, throw in some decent common sense and yes, maybe just maybe, see what the stars have to say (unless Juliet has written them in which case perhaps tread a little more carefully).

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