Reviewing: The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher and Eidelweiss+ in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. 

Content warnings: Discussions of abuse in relationships, rampant sexism, ill treatment of natives on scientific expeditions mentioned briefly. 

My rating: 5 books out of 5

Highlights:

  • Women being unapologetically brilliant 
  • Historical sapphists 
  • This book made me want to learn embroidery 
  • Discovery of sexuality as an adult
  • SCIENCE
  • WOMEN DOING SAID SCIENCE

“We must start not with assumptions, but with the fundamental questions. Several points need to be clearly determined at the outset: first, whether women are capable of astronomy; second, whether they would offer any particular benefit to astronomy; third, whether astronomy would be of any use or benefit to women; fourth, whether it would harm the needs of mankind to encourage women to put their efforts toward the sciences rather than the continuation of the species.”

Despite being relatively new to the world of romance fiction, I recognise the Avon Impulse logo when I see it, and I was incredibly excited to see it on the front of a f/f romance novel – a historical romance at that, my ultimate weakness. So of course I had to request the ARC. The Lady’s Guide To Celestial Mechanics is the first in Olivia Waite’s upcoming Feminine Pursuits series. It follows Lucy Muchelney, a young astronomer as she navigates the scientific world following the death of her father – under whose name her calculations were published – and as she is forced to deal with the loss of her lover whose loveless marriage to a man has driven them apart. When the opportunity to translate a well known astronomical text arises, Lucy finds herself on the doorstep of Catherine St Day, Countess of Moth, seeking patronage and support. 

Every generation had women stand up and ask to be counted—and every generation of brilliant, insightful, educated men has raised a hand and wiped those women’s names from the greater historical record.

This is a book that deals very heavily with the role of women throughout the history of scientific discovery and how thoroughly those women were kept out of the history books. In a world where scientific discoveries are often granted merit by institutions that allowed only male members, how were these brilliant women to share their knowledge? Capable, intelligent, qualified women were overlooked in favour of the sons of scientists, their skills secondary to their sex. Fit only to be mentored, to support the scientific world while never being accepted as a part of it. I hugely enjoyed this depiction of women as pioneers, as artists and scientists. It did at times overshadow the romance element a little, but when there is SCIENCE to be done I’m sure seduction tends to take a back seat. I also appreciated, as someone with absolutely zero scientific or mathematical ability, but a great deal of interest, that creativity was presented as having value. Catherine, the widow of a well-known scientist, designs and executes beautiful embroidery designs the value of which are dismissed by the men in her life as the frivolous pastime of a woman. When the men in this novel draw, paint, discover, it is called art, science, progress – when the women do it, even better, it is a hobby. 

The inescapable truth: women could fall in love with other women. Strange indeed that an idea could change your life so completely, and yet fit in so perfectly with all that came before. She felt the force of it in her very bones. It was less as if her biography were being rewritten, and more as though Catherine were suddenly able to read the other set of lines that lay crosswise on the familiar page. The way the curve of one woman’s waist had made her heart race. The elation when that Italian viscountess with dark hair and sparkling eyes had laughed at Catherine’s teasing. It was desire, the same as she’d felt for the attractive men she’d known, and some sly part of her must have recognized this all along because she had put a great deal of effort into keeping these thoughts and impulses from seeing the light of day.

I love the way female desire was portrayed in this book. Lucy has known since girlhood that she is what we would now call a lesbian, Catherine is thirty and a widow before she makes sense of the things she has felt for other women. The sex scenes are realistic, and sexy, there’s full on consent discussions that I adored:

“It wasn’t too fast for me—but perhaps it was too fast for you?” 

Catherine fought to loosen the tangled knots of her feelings, then huffed in frustration. 

“I don’t know.” 

Lucy took Catherine’s hands, gently rubbing them between her own. 

“Then we stop.” Catherine blinked. Her senses were still a riot, her breath still coming fast and hot in her throat. 

“As easy as that?” She didn’t know if she was protesting or demanding proof Lucy meant what she said.

Spoiler alert: they wait until they are both ready and then they have lots of great sex. The relationship between Lucy and Catherine is mutually supportive and mindful of the status difference between them and the power that could allow Catherine to wield over her lover. I did feel that sometimes there needed to be just a tad more communication between the two of them regarding the status of old love affairs and their respective intentions moving forward – you just wanted to bang their heads together at times, but they were two women in love navigating new relationships, feelings and massive scientific discoveries so I guess I can cut them some slack. 

“You must miss her very much.”

Aunt Kelmarsh went utterly still, staring at Lucy. Lucy looked back, her face calm, her eyes soft. Tension crackled in the air, making Catherine tense her shoulders and bite her tongue to silence questions. Aunt Kelmarsh sent her one flicker of a glance—and straightened, lifting her chin in the air. 

“She was my very soul.

I adored this book. It was a beautiful exploration of women’s fight for recognition throughout history, and of the secret languages they used between themselves in spite of the men who dismissed them – the languages of clothing, needlework, close ‘friendships’ that spanned their entire lifetimes. These were women succeeding every day in a world determined to see them forgotten, and finding love in a world that refused to acknowledge it. 

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