I’m so glad I chose this book to kick off my reading for 2020. Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is a smarty and sexy read that combined so many of my favorite things: history, reclaiming women’s work, and lesbians. It’s also the first lesbian romance novel I’ve read from a mainstream romance publisher. That’s not a sentence I’d ever imagine writing.
Why I Read It
Since its release in June, 2019, I’d seen several people posting about The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Romance on social media. Then, in October, Waite was one of the authors at KISSCON New England, an event by Avon Books and Bank Square Books at Mohegan Sun. I wanted to attend that event to get more exposure to romance authors and their books — and to meet Waite — but it was the same day as the Hachette Book Brunch in NYC, which I’d had tickets to for months. Elissa Sweet, events manager at Bank Square Books and Savoy Bookstore & Cafe, was lovely to send me a copy of the novel inscribed by Waite.
The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is set in 1816 England. Lucy Muchelney is the daughter of a respected astronomer. Everyone assumes she’s “just” his assistant, but she’s been more than that for a long time, working all of the mathematical equations needed to prove his theories. After he dies, she’s left at the mercy of her artistic brother who is selfishly all about his painting and imagines no future for Lucy other than marriage. He even wants to sell the family telescope. “Did he really expect her to sacrifice her passions to support his?” Yes, indeed. He is a man of his time and station, after all.
For years before the opening of the story, Lucy had been in a relationship with Priscilla, who doesn’t tell Lucy she’s to marry a man. Priscilla cruelly lets her lover hear the news in public, along with everyone else, in church.
On the day her brother leaves town for a few weeks of painting, Lucy receives a letter from Catherine Kenwick St. Day, The Countess of Moth, She’s the widow of a scientist and has been handling her husband’s correspondence with Lucy’s father for years. Catherine is writing to ask for a recommendation for a translator for a ground-breaking French work of astronomy. Instead of writing back, Lucy, desperate to keep her hand in science and get away after her lover’s betrayal, journeys to London to offer herself for the position.
The story takes off from there. The growing lust and love between Lucy and Catherine, who is ten years older than Lucy, is entwined with the discrimination against women who want to pursue science. Much of their budding romance happens in Catherine’s dead husband’s well-stocked library that has all of the science books Lucy needs for her task.
This is Lucy, thinking about Catherine early on,
She was intelligent, of course, but Lucy had known that. Sharp, too–but you’d have to be, to have survived so many sea voyages to such challenging places. The years she’d spent moving from one far-off land to another, with barley a brief pause at home in between! When she’d looked at Lucy and narrowed her eyes in that evaluating way, Lucy had gone a bit breathless. She’d felt like a book pulled down from the shelf, splayed open by a determined reader, and held firmly in place until she gave up all her secrets .Page 20
That’s a simile I can embrace. Meow.
It was a good experience to read a lesbian love story and feel reasonably assured that there wouldn’t be a major gay-bashing scene. I know lesbian fiction has diversified greatly over the last thirty years, but I’m still recovering from all the lesbian fiction I read in my twenties that almost always included an obligatory scene of homophobic violence. (And that’s not to put down those books, at all. They were written to reflect lived experience, not as fantasy romance.)
In Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, there’s a scene where the editor tells Jo that if her main character is a woman, she needs to either marry or die at the end of the story. That was the norm for 19th-century fiction about women. For lesbian characters, until very recently, they needed to end up excruciatingly isolated from all love or dead.
Thankfully, things are changing, both in the world and in books. There’s obviously still much violence against all women in real life, but it was a nice respite to read a novel and know that two women lovers will have a happy ending and that the challenges they face wouldn’t be horrifically grim.
Not that it’s a cake walk to have to hide your love (even in your own home) or deal with the idiocy of wealthy white male privilege, but the love of Lucy and Catherine is center stage here. There are some delightful supporting characters, annoying foils, and a fantastic climax scene (I’m referring to the plot climax here . . . there are several other types of climaxes in the story 😉).
Will I become an avid reader of lesbian romance or f/f romance as they’re called in genre parlance? I’d definitely give another one a try. It wouldn’t hurt to spice up my reading routine with some love stories.
- Author: Olivia Waite (author website)
- Title: The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics (Goodreads link)
- Publisher: Avon Impulse, June 25, 2019
- Bottom line: A sexy and smart f/f historical romance that brings to life the early 19th-century world of London’s scientific societies and crushes the myth that only men have engaged in scientific study.
P.S. I participated in Sheila’s First Books of 2020 again this year. Can you find my selfie with The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics in one of her collages?