The Promise of Stardust opens with a tragic accident. Matt Beaulieu, a neurosurgeon, learns that his wife Elle, an astrophysicist and an astronaut, has fallen from a ladder while helping her brother wash windows at his house. Having struck her head on a rock during the fall, Elle arrives at the hospital in a condition which practically guarantees her death. If she does manage to survive, she will likely never regain consciousness. Matt considers disallowing surgery, but at the insistence of another doctor, a friend, he allows the operation to go forward. When Elle returns from the operation, she is in a terminal condition, kept alive by a breathing apparatus.
She is also pregnant.
And that’s the twist to Sibley’s story. As she proceeds to tell us more about Elle and Matt, and about their own parents and siblings, the dilemma between allowing Elle to die or keeping her alive to bear the child becomes apparent. Elle’s own mother suffered a horrid, lingering, and painful death from cancer, and Elle has made it reasonably clear that she doesn’t want to be kept alive without hope of recovery.
On the other hand, Elle has suffered both miscarriages and a still-birth, and has expressed to her husband and to her private journals a desperate desire for children.
These two premises set the battleground of the novel — Elle’s terrible fear against being kept artificially alive placed against her desperate wish for a child of her own. On one side of that battlefield stands Matt, Elle’s father Hank, and Matt’s attorney, his roommate in college who now is a leading lawyer of constitutional law. Opposing them are Linney, Matt’s mother and Elle’s surrogate mom, Elle’s brother Christopher, and Elle’s former lover and fiancé, Adam.
In her description of this fight — the legal wrangling, the personal sniping and full-scale battles between these two groups, particularly between Matt and his mother, who is a neonatal nurse, and the more public antagonism between forces supporting Elle’s right to die and those who want the baby carried, if possible to term — Sibley excels in thrusting us into the middle of the moral dilemma faced by both sides. Her expertise in medicine and nursing serve her well as she shows us both the benefits and some of the awful consequences of modern medical practice — the ability to prolong life in such situations as well as the dreadful cost, especially psychological, to those who must deal with the consequences of their decisions regarding a loved one hooked up to tubes and machines. Anyone who has ever been forced to decide whether to let a person in such circumstances die, to have that responsibility, will surely relive that decision when reading The Promise of Stardust.
Sibley also gives us a fine portrait of the struggles faced by Matt. As a neurosurgeon, he knows that the accident has killed his wife, though her body continues to breathe and function artificially; as a husband, he believes that Elle, who was pretty clear about not wanting to be kept alive in such circumstances, would nonetheless want to bring the baby to term. As we follow the legal and medical twists of The Promise of Stardust, we share in Matt’s agony about his wife.
There are flaws in the story. Sibley gives us numerous flashbacks to the younger years of Elle and Matt, a story of intense love which may interest the reader at first but which eventually gets in the way of the primary plot. Because of the dramatic beginning to the story, these visits to the past may become tedious to certain readers eager to read on and find out what finally happens.
There is also a good deal of repetition among the characters in the arguments for allowing Elle to die. Such repetition would occur naturally under such circumstances — the disagreements, which almost split them permanently, between Matt and his mother are vividly rendered — but they, too, serve as anchors on the story, slowing the action and hobbling the pace.
Readers who come to this book expecting Sibley to take sides for or against abortion, or for or against a right to die, will be disappointed. Though she has some opinions on these issues, which she expresses in an interview at the back of the novel, Sibley has not written The Promise of Stardust as a polemic, but has instead chosen to show us all the heartache, all the pain, all the efforts to do the right thing, which such a condition rouses among those who must stand by the bed of a patient in this terrible condition. She doesn’t take sides, but instead follows the wiser course of presenting the predicament and the possible solutions, and then allowing the reader to come to a conclusion.
In spite of the weaknesses cited above — and many readers may not find them flaws at all — The Promise of Stardust is a worthy effort, a cleared-eyed look at death, life, suffering, and above all, the power of love.