Astronomer Avey Fleming and his wife Kate strive to keep their feet on the ground while reaching for the stars in The Exclusion Principle, the latest work by veteran novelist and poet Leona Gom. When the pair travel to Mauna Kea, Hawaii, so that Avey can pursue his research, the sinews that hold their tenuous marriage together threaten to snap. The exclusion principle of the title states that no two electrons in an atom can be in the same state at the same time, which apparently prevents matter from collapsing or imploding. It is an apt metaphor for Avey and Kate’s marriage, as well as being a symbol for the competition between Avey and Bruno, his professional nemesis.
Though Gom uses Avey and Kate’s alternating points of view to dramatize their individual concerns and histories, husband and wife sound oddly similar. The segue between the two perspectives is often a common thought, a nearly identical phrase, or a repeated snippet of dialogue. In one case, Avey’s section ends with the thought, “Remember, Jesus. Of course I remember”; this is immediately followed by Kate’s comment, “Of course I remember.” This technique strains credulity and feels contrived, the author’s hand distractingly visible.
To Gom’s credit, Kate’s flashes of wit occasionally distinguish the two voices, separating her from the overly serious Avey. Arriving at their “little house of horrors” in Hawaii, abandoned by a French physicist whose grant ran out, Kate spots a troop of black ants carrying pieces of something white and gelatinous and hopes that their meal doesn’t consist of the home’s erstwhile owner.
Gom is good at building suspense, though her habit of telegraphing themes diminishes the novel’s subtlety. Avey connects the dots between himself and Bruno early on: “Maybe Bruno and I were the electrons that couldn’t occupy the same office unless we had opposite spin.… Lord help us if we got the same spin at the same time.” The metaphorical connection with the novel’s title would have more impact if readers were allowed to come to it on their own.
Despite these drawbacks, The Exclusion Principle is an entertaining read, in which the quotidian world of marriage and the exotic field of astronomy mesh. Still, the novel would have benefited from a lighter hand.