The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite is a historical romance set in early 19th century England.

Lucy Muchelney has been left without parents, without sufficient funds, and without her childhood love, Priscilla, who has just wed a man. Lucy has spent her formative years in love with “Pris” and training at the feet of her astronomer father.

Albert Muchelney was a member of London’s Polite Science Society, and took advantage of Lucy’s mathematical gifts to document proofs for his work. Of course Lucy’s contributions went unattributed because she is a woman, and upon his death she finds herself ill-positioned to find paid work as a scientist.

Then Lucy receives a letter from Ms Catherine St. Day, Countess of Moth. Catherine needs a translator for a groundbreaking astronomy treatise. Catherine never imagined Lucy would travel from Lyme to London and put herself forward for the job. It may be the perfect fit, but only if Lucy can successfully translate this difficult work while also battling the Polite Science Society and it’s male-only policies at every turn.

The Characters

Miranda: Lucy is in her early twenties and grew up on the coast of Lyme, far from the scientific circles of London.

She takes an analytical approach to both her work and to people, and it’s fascinating to see her form conclusions based on “evidence” which she helpfully outlines at certain points of the novel.

While young, Lucy is confident in her abilities as an astronomer and in her abilities with women, and she quickly succeeds in wooing Catherine. One of my favorite things about this novel is how subtly perceptive Lucy is, which upended my expectations for the character.

Catherine is a wealthy woman in her thirties and has been widowed by her astronomer husband, George St. Day. George was also a member of the Polite Science Society, and Catherine accompanied him on several expeditions around the world. However, behind closed doors, George was emotionally abusive and dismissive of his wife’s abilities. Catherine found an outlet by creating detailed needlework patterns inspired by scientific things like botanical specimens and constellations.

Lucy discovers Catherine’s talent, and it’s wonderful to see Catherine flourish with Lucy’s encouragement. Catherine reveals herself to be not only a talented artist but also a shrewd business woman.

Tara: I totally agree with Miranda. For me, seeing both women thrive thanks to their relationship is one of my favourite aspects of this book. Catherine is finally able to heal and move on from the abuses she experienced with George, as well as gain confidence and validation for her interest in botany and needlework. Similarly, Lucy is able to move on from her love for Pris (who I do not like at all, but am not really supposed to, so that’s fine), while also being able to shine thanks to Catherine believing in her abilities and backing her as the translator for one of the most important astronomy projects of their time. Each grows in ways that are good for themselves individually, while also bringing them closer together, leaving me with a very happy heart.

The Writing Style

Miranda: While the novel is a historical romance, it doesn’t delve too deeply into period details. The primary conflict is between Lucy and the Polite Science Society. More obvious obstacles during the period, such as homophobia and classism, are skimmed over.

Unfortunately, the book’s primary commentary regarding lack of recognition for women in science remains relevant today.

The pacing is solid, and the book is well-edited.

Tara: Last year, Heather Rose Jones came on my podcast and shared five reasons why the English Regency period is an ideal setting for romances between women. The first reason she shared is that there was a flourishing of the concept of romantic friendship between women at that time, which gave cover to a wide variety of relationships. To me, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is a perfect example of this, because no one questions the friendship between Lucy and Catherine, nor would they unless they did something impulsive like make out in public. If I hadn’t learned that from Heather, I might have questioned it, and was instead thrilled to see it borne out in this story.

The writing style was lush and gorgeous at times, while poignant in others, and I found myself highlighting passage after passage because I didn’t want to miss a thing.

The Pros

Miranda: As a science major myself, I appreciated the unconventional pursuit of astronomy for the novel’s main character. It’s difficult to pull off a believable scientist as a main character, which is why so many romances feature realtors, advertising executives, and the like. The author does a good job of including just enough details without getting bogged down in minutiae and straining credibility. I just want to thank Olivia Waite for recognizing that nerds can be hot, too!

In addition to Lucy’s astronomy, the author takes care to detail Catherine’s love of needlework. The descriptions of her work in this novel are AWESOME. I don’t sew, but this book made me want to pick up a needle and thread to try it out. The author obviously has a deep appreciation for sewing, and it shows through in the lush descriptions of patterns and color in the book.

Tara: Okay, so I liked pretty much everything, including the things that I already talked about and the ones that Miranda mentions in this section.

So, instead of talking about the characters or their relationship (which I love), I want to talk about that cover. When I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, my mom read a lot of books with covers like this, but of course with men and women on them. I read a lot of those too, starting when I was 12 or 13, because that’s what was around. When I first saw THIS cover on Twitter, I almost cried. It’s like those books I grew up with, but with queer women on it. It was so validating to see this and to feel like the two parts of my life—when I was growing up thinking I was straight and who I am now as an out bisexual woman—were colliding. I was so happy to see that the story lived up to the cover and I hope it will help queer girls who don’t necessarily know they’re queer yet to see who they are and know that they’re okay.

The Cons

Miranda: While so much passion for needlework shone through, I found the descriptions of attraction between the two lead characters to be a bit shallow. The novel included the requisite sex scenes, but the pairing between Lucy and Catherine happens relatively early in the novel. I would have preferred more tension and buildup to that aspect of the story.

Tara: If I have any quibble with the story, it’s that there’s a minor conflict between Lucy and Catherine near the end that could have been resolved with a conversation. Like Miranda said above, the majority of conflict between them was external, and I would have preferred it stayed all the way external or been something more serious. Still, that’s a minor concern and didn’t take away much from my overall enjoyment.

taras favourite lesbian booksThe Conclusion

Miranda: The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is an easy-reading historical romance. Who doesn’t dream of finding a wealthy, attractive benefactor to fund their passion project? If you enjoy stargazing, sewing, and smashing the patriarchy, then this is the book for you!

Tara: I loved this book so much and just want everyone to read it. Again, hats off to Olivia Waite for delivering such a fine book for her first foray into f/f romance. I hope she comes back many, many times.

Excerpt from The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

With heartfelt passion, Lucy cursed the French subjunctive tense. She cast a bitter eye over the scribblings of her latest efforts. Oléron deserved so much better, and Lucy was beginning to despair of capturing even a third of the crystalline clarity of the original. Two months of consistent translating and expanding still hadn’t made the frustrating compromises easier to bear. She put down might for this verb’s translation, frowned at it, crossed it out, wrote might again, and then in parentheses added should with a pair of helpless question marks.

Let Future Lucy make the ultimate decision during revisions to the text. Future Lucy was always so much more decisive, somehow. Maybe because she was ever-so-slightly closer to death than Present Lucy?

Lucy groaned and slumped back in her chair, rolling her shoulders to ease the soreness from leaning for hours over the desk. When she started musing about the inevitability of death and the terrifying brevity of the mortal lifespan, it meant she’d spent too long looking at things from the perspective of the universe. She needed something on a human scale to focus on until the framework shifted back.

A soft knock heralded Lady Moth’s entrance to the library. Her dress today was a lush plum that brought out the gold in her hair and the pink in her cheeks. She looked positively radiant, and deep within Lucy a chord hummed as if a hand had strummed the very fibers of her soul and set them to music.

It ought to have been agonizing, living and working in close quarters alongside a woman so beautiful and yet so unattainable. But Lucy’s heart, newly mended, was prepared to bask in any sensation that was not the sharp pain of loss—so unrequited fascination for her benefactress came not as a trial, but rather as a pleasurable seasoning to any day’s difficult work. And if the feeling occasionally stole her breath and her wits and kept her awake into the small hours of the night, well, nobody had to know. Really, it was much safer and more convenient than any actual love affair would have been.

Perhaps this was how her future could best be managed: devoting her days to scientific work and spending her nights silently, secretly pining for a woman with golden hair and clever hands.

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