Book Review: Stargazer // Laurie Petrou

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The lifestyles and struggles of the young, rich, and gifted are endless fodder for fiction; in this regard, Laurie Petrou’s fourth novel prods at familiar yet perennially captivating ground. Set between a wealthy suburb of Toronto and an elite private university, Stargazer sees two girls grow up across the street from each other, almost unaware of the other’s existence, and then become inseparable in their new independent life. Diana Martin is the artist talented beyond her years, aloof from her days of constant bullying by her now-deceased brother. Aurelle Taylor is the daughter of an iconic fashion family, picture perfect in the spotlight but painfully uncomfortable. The family secrets, dynamics, and deadly games that emerge from this pairing form the heart of Stargazer, though the end result is mixed on impact and delivery. 

Stargazer is gripping, with cuts between timelines and perspectives keeping the momentum consistent throughout. It revels in its heroines’ successes and more so in their deepest, darkest moments; in a critical atmosphere given to purity culture, it is a nasty and needed breath of fresh air. Its two hundred and fifty pages speed along, stumbling only in muddy, middling prose and clunky tenses. The style — heavily reliant on grammatical anomalies and purposeful errors, such as tense contradiction and sentence fragments — distracts from rather than enhances the atmosphere, making reading difficult rather than characterful. 

The two girls at the heart of this tale — the grim yet gifted Diana Martin against the blessed, wilting Aurelle Taylor — are each rendered through omniscient third person narration, giving readers glimpses deep into their souls with an awareness of how the world sees their seemingly-charmed lives. In the beginning section, as their past and present intersect and their path to university is charted, this background is compelling if heavy-handed. However, as the novel progresses character potential is squandered. Secrets and depths are teased early on, but reveals sometimes squander the most satisfactory clues. It is hard to determine if this was a decision to avoid the obvious choice, but left-field developments for shock cheapen the knotty human relationships at the narrative’s core. 

Stargazer walks an uneasy line between the fetishisation and critique of wealth, privilege, substance abuse, and the North American college experience. This uneasy effect brings to mind other novels (such as The Secret History and A Separate Peace) that have pulled off this delicate balance with more skill and humanity, immediately putting Petrou’s work on the back foot. Descriptions of actions fuelled by drugs and alcohol feel almost rote, and instead of bringing attention to the crippling nature of addiction it feels like a convenient excuse for the next series of actions. Were the novel longer, with more time given to shown-not-told interiority, the downward spiral may feel more nuanced and honest rather than landing at rock bottom almost on the next page. 

As the last half unfolds, the structure of the book feels as if it were written with a film’s storyboard already in mind. Gone are the tenderness and elegant humanity of the first half, eschewed in favour of a point-to-point progression that favours single movie-ready moments rather than the greater perspective and expanse a novel can offer.

There is a compelling nastiness and psychological darkness to Stargazer’s characters, and the way Petrou teases information before reveals that all work — if some less convincingly than others — keeps the pages turning. However, the style occasionally interferes in narrative comprehension, and the final page leaves a tang of dissatisfaction — if not at the end result then at the blood, sweat, and tears Diana and Aurelle shed to get there. 

Stargazer will be available in UK bookshops from the 23rd June 2022. You can pre-order it from Verve Books here

Words by Carmen Paddock

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