Gravity Well by Melanie Joosten
Scribe Publications, 2019
Gravity is an invisible force exerted between any two objects with mass. It holds the cosmos together, keeping the moon circling the Earth, and the Earth and planets circling our sun. As a relation between two bodies in space, gravity offers itself as a rich metaphor for a fiction writer. Appropriately enough, Melanie Joosten’s novel Gravity Well revolves around two main characters, Lotte, an astronomer given to seeing the world in astronomical terms, and Eve, her best friend from university.
When the novel opens, we are with Lotte in a desert in South America, where she has spent the last five years working at an observatory that charts planets outside our solar system. She is preparing to return home to Australia and isn’t eager to get back in touch with her father, with whom she has had little contact since her mother’s death from breast cancer. In alternating chapters, we jump six months into the future, where, six months later back in Australia, Eve arrives at a coastal campsite in winter, ready to pitch a tent in the cold and clearly fleeing something. The momentum of the first half of the novel is muted, arising mostly from the mysteries surrounding the characters’ circumstances and the sense that vital information is being withheld. We are left trying to understand how these characters and timelines are related, what is holding them together — to discern, you could say, the novel’s gravitational pull. When the various pieces of the puzzle do click into place, we understand that Lotte and Eve are tied together in more ways than were initially apparent, and which I won’t spoil too much of here.
Joosten makes liberal use of cosmological imagery throughout the book, and Lotte’s tendency to erupt into a discourse on the cosmos is potent at times yet risks feeling forced at others. In the best of these moments we return to the novel’s central theme:
She remembers her mother once describing the complications of family as a solar system: each person like a planet, keeping their moons spinning close and influencing the paths of their companions. They grab at anything that comes near: a free-spirited satellite, a comet, a space shuttle. Drift too close to another and you risk falling down the planet’s gravity well, being destroyed on its surface; stay too far away and you risk being cut loose, discarded into the ever growing reaches of outer space.
Like celestial bodies, human relationships depend on just the right amount of distance. Come too close and you crash and burn, go too far out and you come untethered, adrift in outer space. In the novel we see this play out in different ways as it applies both to Eve and Lotte’s friendship, their romantic relationships, and the bonds between parents and children.
It takes millions of years for stars to burn out, but human lives are much shorter, our bodies much frailer. Gravity Well is very much about how we cope with tremendous loss. Lotte is not only mourning her mother, but also contemplating her own mortality, given the likelihood that she has inherited the gene mutation that caused her mother’s cancer. Eve is also clearly dealing with grief of some kind, and as the novel progresses, the reader begins to suspect, with a stomach lurch, that it has something to do with her young daughter, Mina.
Gravity Well is a work of conventional realism that achieves its emotional effects through the slow accumulation of detail. There is a kind of thickness to Lotte’s and Eve’s characters; we know about their childhoods, their time at uni, and the history of their romantic relationships. We learn that Lotte’s interest in astronomy can be traced back to her relationship with her mother, whom she idealizes, and that Eve is a sound engineer and bicycling enthusiast. This character work pays off in the second half of the novel as Joosten skillfully weaves these different threads together, and the finished tapestry is both impressive and emotionally resonant.
Joosten allows herself a single moment of meta commentary in this otherwise conventional novel. While visiting with her father, Lotte gets into a discussion about her mother’s dislike of reading fiction. “Think about a novel,” Lotte says, arguing that novels are about,
made-up people going about their made-up lives. What does it really teach you about anything you don’t already know? People can be nice, they can be awful, bad things can happen. End of story.
Her father argues in favor of the arts, for “all the meaning they give us, the sustenance and language to express our emotions and share our human experience.” Neither really wins the argument, but this being a novel, we can guess where the author’s sympathies lie. “People can be nice, they can be awful, bad things can happen” — and our feelings about those things are part of the meaning we make of the world. But to understand that fully, you have to read to the end.