Olivia Waite is, quite simply, one of the finest critics of the romance genre working today. I would advise any skeptic of the genre to read her eloquent celebrations of romance, and her ability to evoke the tone and feeling of a particular book is astonishing. So I was excited, but also a little apprehensive, to hear that she would be publishing a new historical romance, having never read any of her previous books. It was a relief and a joy to find that The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is just as elegant, just as incisive and intelligent, as Waite’s criticism.
Waite’s writing is gorgeous and always purposeful throughout this Regency-era romance. The introductions to astronomer Lucy Muchelney and her aristocratic love interest, Catherine St. Day, are striking and immediately effective, as the text itself shifts to express the differences in their personalities. The reader is thrust into Lucy’s mindset at the start of Lady’s Guide, and Waite renders her keen intelligence and longing for a life in pursuit of knowledge with immediate, straightforward prose. Then when Lucy meets Catherine, the woman who will offer to be her patron, Waite allows her writing to unfold into more fanciful, evocative turns of phrase: “You wouldn’t think, looking at the pinned-up gold of her hair and the sweet pink-and-cream plumpness of her figure, that this was the same woman who’d traversed so much of the globe. . . . She’d sat in that parlor as if she’d been grown there, as immoveable and domestic as a potted rosebush.”
Catherine is Lucy’s last and best chance to emerge from her recently deceased father’s shadow. Having been the mathematical brains behind his theories for years, she knows she is capable of translating the game-changing latest text from French genius Olerón, a task Catherine offered to Lucy’s father before he died. And while Catherine is inclined to allow the single-minded and alluring Lucy to take on the job, she fears becoming further involved with the younger woman. Catherine’s late husband, George, was also devoted to science, a calling that eventually eclipsed all other concerns and excused any emotional cruelty he visited upon his wife.
Waite patiently excavates Catherine’s memories of her difficult marriage, as well as Lucy’s lingering heartbreak over a rejection from a former lover, as the two women grow closer professionally and personally. As they attempt to gain the support of the early scientific community, Waite is able to explore the fascinating world of Regency astronomy, a booming field that commanded rapt popular interest while still warped by the same sexist, racist gatekeeping present in scientific endeavors today. The championing of women in STEM has become a bit of a romance cause célèbre in recent years, especially in historical romance, and Lady’s Guide is among the most nuanced and satisfyingly detailed works in this category. The thrill of discovery, the satisfying internal click when a new concept is fully understood, is beautifully expressed, both in Lucy’s internal monologue and in Catherine’s when Lucy explains her work and her passion for it.
However, Waite also captures how the heady rush of more equal-opportunity Enlightenment-era scientific discovery was slowly but surely narrowing via the staid nature of the following Regency period. As science began to settle into an established role in society, an interested party increasingly needed either wealth of their own or a generous patron to make an impact. This unpleasant fact becomes one of the largest stumbling blocks in Catherine and Lucy’s affair and also complicates Lucy’s relationship with her unsupportive brother, a working artist who is familiar with the dangers of becoming an aristocrat’s pet project.
In the character of Catherine, Waite is able to not only explore the personal costs of the pursuit of science but to also mount a full-throated celebration of so-called “womanly pursuits.” A devoted embroiderer, Catherine turned to needlework and design throughout her difficult marriage for solace and emotional expression. Waite describes Catherine’s embroidery just as rapturously as she details Lucy’s stars and glories in how clothing can be both art and a source of social power.
By the time I reached the wonderful, warm and quite frankly inspirational ending of Lady’s Guide, I only had one main critique, which can also be taken as a compliment. When the Black Moment* arrived, I didn’t accept it. Because I was that certain that Lucy and Catherine were destined for each other.
*the point in a romance when the central relationship seems doomed