The inspiration behind Minnie Darke's romantic comedy Star-Crossed came from her grandmother's love of astrology, which provided her with a field guide to the zodiac, as well as her own years spent as a journalist at a small community newspaper. One of her tasks included compiling an entertainment guide — a simple but time-consuming job that often involved last-minute changes. So that she could deal with these late alterations without bugging the subeditors, she was given a powerful login that gave her access to the entire layout of the newspaper, including the horoscopes.
While she didn't put much stock in their predictions, a friend of hers placed a huge amount of faith in their words. It occurred to her that, theoretically, she could use her login to access the astrology column and to make a few adjustments here and there. At the very least, she could made the astrologer's predictions relevant to her friend's life. Or, if she was feeling more devious, she could manipulate his life choices via astrological advice. While she kept her Machiavellian impulses at bay, the idea ultimately led to the novel.
In the exclusive excerpt below, Darke shares an exchange between her two main characters, Justine (Sagittarius, serious skeptic) and Nick (Aquarius, true believer), childhood friends who seem destined to embark on a life-changing love affair after bumping into one another as adults . . . if only the stars would give them a little help.
Star-Crossed is available May 21.
Justine pointed to her bag, out of the top of which poked a brand-new, rolled-up Star magazine. Nick's eyes widened in genuine, childlike delight.
"Can I?" he asked.
"Be my guest."
He opened it from the back and thumbed through the pages to land — quite expertly, Justine thought — at the horoscopes. With a smile, she remembered his teenage obsession with astrology: the one that she'd assumed he would outgrow.
. . .
He read intently, his dark eyebrows shuffling together in concentration. He looked puzzled, then shook his head slightly, as if to clear his thoughts.
"What's he like?" he asked Justine.
She was lost. "He, who?"
"Leo Thornbury," Nick said, as if this was beyond obvious.
It took a few seconds for Justine to register. When reading the Star, she tended to skip over the regular features she found pointless, like the gardening column. And the horoscopes. Which were written by the supposedly eminent astrologer Leo Thornbury.
"I've never met him," she said. "I don't think any of us has."
"What? Never? None of you?"
"Well, maybe Jeremy. Back in the day. He's the editor. But the rest of us, no. Leo Thornbury doesn't even come to the Christmas party. Apparently, Leo lives on an island, but I don't think we're supposed to know where exactly. To tell you the absolute truth, I'm not certain he's exactly . . . real. Perhaps Leo Thornbury isn't so much a man as, maybe, a machine. A computer in a room somewhere, spitting out random phrases."
"Oh, you cynic."
"Cynic? I thought I was a Sagittarius."
Nick thought for a minute. "So you are. Born on the twenty-fourth of November," he said.
He remembered her birthday. He remembered her birthday. Feeling a prickle of warmth rising up her neck and into her cheeks, she gave silent thanks that the day's light had dwindled into dusk, and Nick wouldn't be able to tell that she was blushing
. . .
"So, what profundities did Leo have for you this month?"
"Yeah, I don't really know what he's trying to say," Nick admitted. "It says: Aquarius. 'What a frightening thing is the human,' wrote Steinbeck, 'a mass of gauges and dials and registers, and we can only read a few and those perhaps not accurately.' For water bearers, this is a month of readjustment. In quiet moments of watchfulness, you may recalibrate your understanding of what it is that truly drives you. What do you think that means?"
Justine shrugged. "Um . . . that Leo Thornbury's quote generator is up to S for Steinbeck."
"No, what do you think it means in my life?" Nick asked.
Just before she could launch into a small monologue about the generic nature of astrological predictions, and how the art of them was in making up sentences that applied to just about any person, in any kind of situation, she saw a thought show up on Nick's face like the notification of an incoming email.
"Hang on," he said.
Nick fished his phone out of his pocket, and Justine watched as he thumbed a query into it.
"Yes, yes, yes!" he said. "I've got it. I know what Leo's trying to tell me!"
"He's telling me to play Romeo!" Justine frowned. "Romeo?"
"Yes, Romeo," said Nick. "Leo wants me to play Romeo."
"You figure that how, exactly?"
"The quote. The quote!"
"The quote is from Steinbeck," Justine reminded him.
"Yes, yes. But," Nick said, and here he tapped the screen of his phone with vigor. "Not just any Steinbeck. It's from The Winter of Our Discontent. You know where that comes from, right?"
"And?" Nick asked.
"Who wrote Richard III? Shakespeare wrote Richard III." Nick was getting excited. "Do you see? You must be able to see."
"Ah . . . struggling here."
"So, I have this choice. There's a production of Romeo and Juliet coming up. They've let me know that if I want it, Romeo's mine. But the show . . . it's not with a big company. It's not even fully professional. But, then, I've never played Romeo."
"So, you want to do it?" Justine said.
"Well, it's a role I've always wanted. But the money will be shit. Or nonexistent."
There was a small silence. Then Nick said, "Leo's horoscopes are always spookily accurate. If he's saying do the Shakespeare, then there will be a good reason. Leo just knows things. Whenever I follow his advice, things go well. Things lead on to . . . you know . . . things."
Justine stared. "This is really how you make important life choices?" Nick shrugged. "Oftentimes, yes."
"I just think that if you want to play Romeo, you should play Romeo. You don't have to twist the words of some stargazing nut to give yourself permission."
"Leo Thornbury is not a stargazing nut. He's a god."
"Maybe you should play Romeo," Justine laughed. "Decision making isn't exactly his strong suit, either."
"You may mock, but Leo says this is right. Leo says this is what I have to do. And Leo will have his reasons."
With the Star coiled into the silhouette of an unlit torch in his hand, he struck a heroic pose against the sky. Justine shook her head, smiling.
"He, that hath the steerage of my course, direct my sail!" Nick called out.
Copyright © 2019 by Minnie Darke. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House New York.