Genre: Historical: European, LGBTQIA, Romance
This guest review comes from Lisa! A longtime romance aficionado and frequent commenter to SBTB, Lisa is a queer Latine critic with a sharp tongue and lots of opinions. She frequently reviews at All About Romance and Women Write About Comics, where she’s on staff, and you can catch her at @thatbouviergirl on Twitter. There, she shares good reviews, bracing industry opinions and thoughtful commentary when she’s not on her grind looking for the next good freelance job.
When I was a little pansexual girl growing up and devouring romance novel after romance novel, my heart yearned. Sure, I could find plenty of stories about heroes rescuing heroines, but where were the books about women falling in breathless love with one another? I went through life half-satisfied in my romance reading. Even as I grew up, outlets for lesbian romances were limited. You had a lot of mainstream novels being published in the 90s and 00s, but you weren’t guaranteed a happy ending for the couples in them, or even in the limited movies I saw (Thank you, But I’m a Cheerleader and Bound). The happiest female couples I read about, ultimately, were the ones I saw in erotic novels. Where were the princesses being spirited off by their brilliant lady knights? Thankfully, the times are a-changin’.
When I read The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, I cried. It was as if all of my fondest wishes and dreams had finally come true, had become instantly and fully real.
Lucy Muchelney is trying to cope with marriage of her longterm girlfriend, Priscilla. Still devastated by the death of her father, Lucy is forced to listen as Pris explains that she doesn’t want to live her life unmarried and, tragically, marriage is something Lucy cannot provide for her. Stephen, Lucy’s painter brother, expects Lucy to join Pris in settling down into a heterosexual marriage since female astronomers are not frequently in demand, and she cannot explain to him why that’s an unthinkable notion. Bereft, Lucy plans for a life of bachelorettehood pursuing her interest in astronomy, much to Stephen’s annoyance, as he doesn’t have the funds to support her scientific pursuits. He even threatens to sell off her beloved telescopes to reduce the financial burden she’s created upon the estate by staying single – this in spite of the fact that they make most of their money from the star catalogs and comet charts that she helped anonymously produce as her father’s assistant.
(Nicki Minaj mouthing “hush” and suggesting someone off-camera should zip their lips).
In the midst of this period of stress and tragedy, Lucy receives a letter from celebrated fellow astronomer Catherine St. Day, Countess of Moth, and Lucy’s personal pain is ameliorated by purpose. Catherine, alongside her naturalist husband George, would regularly send their observational notes to Lucy, and Lucy, as she did for her father, would take those notes and make mathematical calculations that were then translated into the Muchelney star catalogs. A missive from Catherine usually means an important discovery is afoot, but this time something much more exciting is in the offing.
Catherine has written Lucy to help her undertake an important task. One of the last things George did before he died was purchase five volumes on celestial mechanics written by M. Oléron. Catherine requires someone to translate them from French to English for the Polite Science Society, who hopes to distribute the texts for the further benefit of mankind. Catherine and Lucy are both barred from the Society due to their gender, but the organization is still willing to accept Catherine’s money for a translation; and Lucy, with her language skills and quick mind, decides to take up the task of transcribing the work herself. The sexist Polite Society turn Lucy’s request to translate the texts down, and Catherine and Lucy, both outraged, decide to team up to produce their own English language version of the texts – the Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics.
In producing that translation, they get closer. Through Lucy, Catherine finds a bright sense of hope and wonder that helps shake the dust off of her, and someone who encourages her to pursue her talent for embroidery – someone who was not like the abusive, violent George. In Catherine, Lucy finds the possibility of a new love. But will society let them claim it?
The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is a stunning story of healing, passion, science and trust: Cartherine, trying to figure out how life without the nightmarish George works, feels just as purposeless and bereft as Lucy. In mathematics and astronomy, they find their work, their centering, their purpose. In love, they find the ability to heal from a disappointing first love and open their hearts to the possibility of an exciting second love after a volatile marriage, respectively. But first Lucy must learn to leave Pris behind, and Catherine must learn to express her desires instead of pleasing Lucy just like the others who’ve passed through her life.
The book traffics in the parlance of broken hearts beautifully. Lucy’s mourning for her relationship with Pris is so realistic, and so well-done; anyone who’s lost someone will feel her pain and root for her healing. Catherine – trying to get over the pain her husband caused her while discovering what her true life’s pursuit is – manages to be quietly fascinating in her existence. Together, they’re sweet, tender, supportive, and intellectually fascinating. What a love story!
The book’s strong feminist message is wonderful. For all of the devotion to its beautiful love story, Waite also gives plenty of breathing space to Catherine’s search for a purpose, to Lucy’s search for validation as a scientist. In between there are marvelous sections about art, math, and science. Lucy even manages to discover many long-buried heroines within the field, hiding beneath the names of their brothers or husbands.
The way that Waite plays with language is beautiful. Here’s Catherine, thinking of the years ahead of her to be lived in widowhood:
She felt…rudderless. Sluggish as a ship becalmed. The long span of her future stretched out toward the horizon, a flat opaque nothingness as terrible as any sea.
How stunning is that quote? How good and solid and well-done is that prose?
(Marilyn Monroe singing ‘take me’).
I feel like I learned so much about mathematics and astronomy between beautiful moments of conviviality between our two heroines! You can picture the fashions, see the embroidery that Catherine works on, smell paint in the air or feel the rustle of crinoline against one’s calf.
The book does have some mistakes; like Lucy noting Copurnicus believed that the sun revolved around the earth, when he believed in the opposite theory. And the conflict leans a little heavily on lack of communication – these two are, thanks to their scars, awful at speaking to one another in a frank manner. But those are minor blemishes on the beautiful face of a heart stopper of a book.
The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is one of those books that only comes along once in a lifetime. For me, it feels like it’s been several lifetimes, a thousand dreams of princesses rescuing princesses. All of the things I adore in historical romance, this book has. And all the things that I’ve wanted in a f/f romance, this book more than has. It made me laugh and cry (and cry and cry – I might need a bucket to bail my way out of the house!). It taught me things about astronomy that I had no idea about before. It may not have white horses or princesses, but it had heart and grit, and it’s a beautiful and soul-satisfying read that’s the best romance I’ve read this year – and this decade.
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Yay. A potential read! Oh, I noticed that you used Latine, Lisa. Is that a typo or a gentle note that you are non-binary? Meet my first NB person offline so I would like to learn.
This sounds excellent, Lisa. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm.
>> Where were the princesses being spirited off by their brilliant lady knights? >>
There’s an anthology on my TBR that is *literally this*, and I’m waiting for the right mood to strike to start it.
Anyhow, since queer historicals and historicals about scientists are my favorite kinds of historicals, I ended up reading this and The Lawrence Browne Affair in the same need-some-downtime kinda week. It was absolutely perfect.
The only thing that didn’t sit well with me was how cartoonishly awful Pris was, but the cartoonishly awful ex is a trope unto itself. Shrug.
Lucy noting Copernicus believed that the sun revolved around the earth
She may have thought he did. One explanation of why Copernicus got away with it is that he presented the heliocentric system as if it were just a convenient mathematical model: “Look! All your calculations come out so much easier if you just pretend” nudge nudge wink wink “that the sun is at the center, just for calendrical purposes, haha”. And then Galileo comes along: “Nope, we’re saying that this is literally true”.
Really enjoyed this book and this review. Thank you!
Louise, the Copernicus error was a glaring one, but the writing is so sublime, and it’s such an outstanding book that I decided to overlook it. It is fabulous! Such exquisite prose doesn’t come along very often.
The Copernicus error is absolutely mortifying, and results from the way my brain will occasionally grab the wrong name of two that are similar or paired in my head. Galileo and Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. In my college days, my professor laughingly threatened to fail me after my classics major exams because I mixed up the names Athena and Artemis in a timed-write essay. Managed to quote the lines of the play correctly from memory, in Ancient Greek! Just wrote the wrong goddess name over and over again.
Of course, since the Copernicus error is also smack-dab in the middle of a passage on the beauty of being wrong, it is now my favorite accidental Easter egg. But the mistake is ultimately mine, not Lucy’s. Lucy is by far the better astronomer.
@Louise: thank you for the explanation. I’ve occasionally wondered why Copernicus didn’t get into the trouble with religious authorities that Galileo did even though they both said essentially the same thing.
@Olivia – Oh, we all make mistakes, even the best of us! That one just leapt out at me because it was something I remembered from reading up on Copernicus. Everyone makes those mistakes, trust me!
@Louise – Now I’m picturing them talking about this in full Hark! A Vagrant style.
@Pre-Successful Indie – Well, now I know what I’m going to request to read!
@Nicolette – I use she/her pronouns but I like Latine versus Latina. There’s been some discussion in the community about accessibility RE folks dropping use of Latinx for Latine
@ Nan _ I’m a film minor and I definitely have!
I loved But I’m a Cheerleader. Some years ago I tried to see if I could get the DVD from Netflix, when we still had the dvd-by-mail service, and it wasn’t available. Now I’m off to see if any of the streaming services have it. I’m not optimistic, but one never knows.
Thanks for the lovely review. You have a way with words. And I’m also going to see if my library has this book through Overdrive.
I mixed up the names Athena and Artemis in a timed-write essay
Take heart! One of my classmates froze during her PhD oral exams and went utterly blank on how to translate φυσις. Or was it ψυχη? You get the idea.
Thank you @Kris! If you have cable, IFC seems to play it a lot!
This was the best book I read this year, Copernicus error or no. I loved the way the love story of the two women didn’t overpower the stories of finding your own identity as an artist or scientist. And OMG someone finally wrote about scientists in a way that seemed fairly true to life and didn’t depict them as unfeeling mad geniuses that have no common sense or emotional literacy. As a scientist that gets on my nerves. 😉 It left me wanting more like this and disappointed I couldn’t have it to read for the first time all over again.
@Leftcoaster, there’s a song about that exact feeling, https://sunnielarsen.bandcamp.com/track/the-last-page