book: The Astronomer (2010) by Lawrence Goldstone

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I date my personal fascination for the history of science to my encounter, during my early twenties, with Arthur Koestler’s monumental The Sleepwalkers (1959). In that book Koestler examined the emergence of Western science from the shadows of the Church-dominated centuries, focusing on Copernicus, Kepler and Newton as the primary agents of change. I still thrill to the mere mention of the names of these three.

So a novel set in 1534 France, on the eve of the Copernican revolution and less than twenty years after the Lutheran one, as the Roman Catholic Church thrashes around with some prelates fanatically determined to extirpate the new and others more timidly eager to embrace it, is an easy sell to me, you bet.

Goldstone — whose first science-historical mystery, The Anatomy of Deception, I read last year — more or less met my expectations with this later thriller. I did have the feeling that, had I been less interested in the history-of-science and the roiling stew of reactions to it from the Church — as personified in Goldstone’s protagonist, Amaury de Faverges, illegitimate son of the Duke of Savoy — I might have been a bit more critical of the telling, but that takes nothing away from how much I personally enjoyed this book.

The plot’s a sort of adventure thriller. Amaury receives (and loathes) a theological training at Montaigu, the strict seminary in Paris where students were sent for education and got a flogging-enforced theological brainwashing instead. His real interest is in science, especially astronomy, which he assumes to be the study of the universe portrayed by the geocentric cosmology of Claudius Ptolemy, as adopted into the Church centuries earlier.

Circumstances change Amaury’s mind and his allegiances. Sent as a tool of the Inquisition to spy on the Lutherans and their “attempt to destroy Genesis,” he reads a copy of Copernicus’s initial letter outlining his heliocentrism (it was a sort of rough draft of De Revolutionibus that the Polish canon nervously and confidentially sent out to a few like minds) and immediately recognizes the truth of it. His mission becomes one of saving the life of Copernicus from the assassins the Inquisition sends to eliminate this perceived threat.

Along the way, Amaury reunites with his childhood sweetheart, the high-born Hélène, now conveniently widowed from an unsuccessful arranged marriage, so there’s love interest, too. In fact, Hélène is one of two strong-willed, intelligent women who play an important role in the proceedings; it was good to see them there, and I enjoyed their company even as I was slightly skeptical that their independence of spirit would have been permitted to survive long in that repressive society.

Goldstone provides an interesting afterword in which he explains which elements of his tale are historical and which invented out of whole cloth.

All in all, an excellent thriller if you’re into the history of science and ideas.

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5 thoughts on “book: The Astronomer (2010) by Lawrence Goldstone

  1. You read The Newton Letter a couple of years ago, you say elsewhere: there’s also a couple of other books by John Banville – Doctor Copernicus and Kepler – also inspired by The Sleepwalkers.
    Another fascinating book is Owen Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read – inspired by The Sleepwalkers in a different way! Gingerich set out to check Koestler’s claim that hardly anyone actually read Copernicus and both shows Koestler was mistaken and finds out some very interesting things. He tracked down just about every extant copy of De Revolutionibus and examined their annotations and their histories.

    • Yes, a few years ago I started one of the other two Banville books you mention (can’t now remember which) but wasn’t overwhelmingly thrilled by it. For some reason Banville’s one of those authors who’s very hit-or-miss for me.

      Thanks for the Gingerich tipoff. I’ll have to look that one out.

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