“The Light of the Midnight Stars” has a dreamy quality which makes me think it best read with the curtains drawn and a candle lit, surrounded by comforting objects of home. Rena Rossner's second novel invites us to examine what home is, when hatred and the threat of being displaced is a constant. How to keep the fire of “Home” kindled when you are scattered and your traditions — what makes home feel like home, your life feel like your life — might draw evil attention? How to survive suffering?
Rossner brings together Jewish, Romanian, and Hungarian folklore and infuses the woods and countries of 14th century Eastern Europe with secret magics. Rabbi Isaac and his three daughters are descendants of King Solomon and can work miracles. There is Hannah, the oldest, who can heal and make plants grow; Sarah, dissatisfied, vital, with the power to control fire; Levana, the youngest, a dreamy stargazer who reads doom in the skies. A black mist falls across Hungary, taking shape of a black dragon and turning all to blight. When Hannah's wedding turns to tragedy, the family loses everything and flees to another country, taking up new names and identities. There they meet Theodora of Wallachia — a prince with many secrets — and are truly embroiled in a fairy tale, complete with evil stepmothers, animal transformations, and beastly bridegrooms. Each sister struggles to come to terms with who they are now, who they were then, and who they might be.
In spite of a promising premise and lucid prose style, “The Light of the Midnight Stars” never successfully comes together. The pacing is unsteady, dragging in some places and going too fast in others. The sisters' parents disappear strangely into the tale once the second half begins. I don't mean they're no longer present; although not written out of the story, suddenly they become props. Most of the focus is — rightfully — on the sisters, but it was still a jarring transformation following the close family dynamic presented in the first third of the novel.
In fact, my principal critique — the thing which throws the balance and pacing just a little askew — for “The Light of the Midnight Stars” is the characters never quite become real. Sarah and Hannah are the most engaging, but their stories glance off one another, almost connecting, but then suddenly veering away in a way that makes me wonder why they're in the same book. The sisters become props in one another's tales, too.
Especially Levana, who never manages to become more than words on a flat page. She is most caught up in a fairy tale, quite literally able to speak with the stars and receive a visit from a Star Man. This hits all of my buttons, and I should have adored it, but her actions seem the most at mercy of the machinery of the plot. In the latter half of the novel, her chapters are suddenly written as poetry — okay, fine, Levana is courting a Star — but it left me cold. The stylistic choice didn't serve the character's story or make me connect any more deeply to Levana; quite the opposite. Theodor's story, which becomes as important as the sisters' with which it is entangled, is fascinating, an exploration of gender identity and hope — but even this suffers under a strange disconnect. The villain is ... very ephemeral, until suddenly it gets a concrete backstory, and that jarred too.
It's frustrating, because there is so much delicious meat on the bone. Once in a while, the reader can almost taste what the story promises — family, sisterhood, vibrancy, connection. But then the story skips onward, leaving one thinking, That's all? or But wait, just a moment! Please! By page 367 (I made a note there in pencil), I was still wondering when I was going to care. I wanted to. I wanted to know what was going to happen, but almost from a sense of duty to what “The Light of the Midnight Stars” could have been.
Rossner braids together three stories (four, including Theodora's) of sisters trying to survive persecution and loss and the cyclic nature of these experiences. Her research is impressive and she is clearly skilled at infusing the mundane and sacred with fairy tale magic. Unfortunately, the binding that should hold these story-strands tightly together is too loose; ultimately, the braid doesn't hold shape, and we're left with the dissatisfying suggestion of a moving story instead of the true tale.
Jessica P. Wick is a writer, freelance editor, and California native currently living in Rhode Island.
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