I’m really glad I saw someone recommend this book at Pajiba, because I’m certain I would not have picked it up otherwise. With the rare exception, I’m drawn to literary fiction, essay collections, and non-fiction about politics. There is the occasional memoir or fantasy book, but in the past few years my focus has coalesced around exploring literary fiction written by women (women of color especially). That’s not to say I don’t have an interest in romance, but I think after reading so many YA books that I struggled to identify with, romantic narratives became something I preferred as a subplot, secondary to other ambitions, pursuits, and concerns. It was also something I was happy to get a taste of via fanfiction, since a lot of queer writers try their hands at fairly accessible fandoms, and it’s just easier to find a lesbian pairing I care about when I’m already invested in the characters.
Plus, being a proper book snob, I would not have chosen a book with this particular cover, published by this particular imprint. How am I even supposed to be able to tell a book is good if its cover isn’t illustrated so beautifully that I can Pinterest it? Especially if comes to the world via Avon!
Well, turns out Avon has some very nice acquisition instincts. I do wish the book had tighter editing—at one point the main character, Catherine, is identified as Caroline; the transitions could be smoother, especially during the second half of the book, where there are a lot of time jumps; and the shifting POVs were a bit too frequent and unnecessary at times. However, other than these small things, which could probably have been tweaked with an extra copyediting pass and some structural changes, I wouldn’t change much about The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics.
The characters are neither thrown together in some brief encounter that leaves them hopelessly smitten, nor are they forced together to barely tolerate each other until they fall in love. No, these two women have agency and they have goals that have nothing to do with being romantically involved. That’s not say the book uses that other annoying romance trope and keeps them apart and lusting for each other and exhibiting some degree of hostility all at the same time. Lucy and Catherine both arrive at the beginning of this narrative with heady baggage and trust issues. And yet, they find it in themselves to be utterly adult, make their feelings clear, and attempt a connection even if they fear it may not prove solid and lasting.
More importantly, they are both in journey towards finding purpose, Lucy by undertaking a difficult translation project despite discouraging dismissals of her abilities as an astronomer from both fellow scientists and her brother, and Catherine by discovering an identity outside of taking care of others while they pursue their passions. This being Historical Fiction, I did expect the book to delve into the erasure of women and their contributions to science, which the book did so well I was more than elated, but I was also positively surprised at it addressing the marginalization of feminine pursuits.
Catherine starts out as someone who could have been a scientist herself, if only her emotionally abusive husband hadn’t been so diligent at using, exhausting, and belittling her, but it soon becomes clear that like Lucy, we might have been dismissive of the interests Catherine displays all along, and it was nice to see the book turn our expectation on its head and let one of its protagonists choose embroidery as her ambition, and grow the confidence to call herself an artist and be proud of her work despite it not being destined to a Museum wall and mentions in History books. It was quite lovely to have our leading ladies just as concerned about what is or isn’t art as they are about their connection and whether they can sustain it without the official status of marriage.
In fact, I found the whole book to be quite lovely, and I do mean that as the highest compliment. I enjoy realistic narratives more than anything, but I do think there can be ways to make joy and love feel true without angst and characters that are just assholes. And this book proves it by making sure that institutionalized racism, misogyny and homophobia are all present and are significant in the plot without grinding our characters down. Of course, I do wish the women of color were given more space to be known to the readers. There were definitely some lulls in the narrative, for example, where we could have had more interactions with Catherine’s lady’s maid Narayan, and maybe gotten to known her beyond her obvious competence and kindness. It did feel weird that one of the young white servants gets a passion and journey all of her own, but we never get to know Nayaran beyond knowing that she makes less money than her sister, but won’t allow Catherine to address that since Catherine’s timing does make it seem like something of a bribe.
I both enjoyed that Catherine’s house staff is all supportive of her relationship and protective of her, but found it a bit disheartening that this was one of those books where the downstairs people are all happy to serve and super loyal and the household basically runs itself like a dream. Maybe it would have been way too much for this book to try and address classism in Regency England on top of everything else, but I do wish all the servants came off as fully formed people, with misgivings and goals and issues of their own, and not just a group of people who made our protagonists lives easier.
Similarly, I would have preferred if the end wasn’t so quick and tidy. I loved that it was unashamedly happy, but I wish we had spent a lot more time with the one character introduced at the end, and that we also got more of Catherine’s Aunt since she was basically staying with them at the time and she was such a fascinating character.
In the end though, when all my complaints have to do with wanting more of this world and more of these characters, a book can only be great. I do think that better developed characters of color is a fairly important thing to miss, but I also do appreciate that at least they are around, there are several of them, and there are no concerns about whether it’s “realistic” to have anyone non-white show up in a historical novel and be anything other than a slave or a servant.
All in all, Waite crafted a charming, diverse tale that could just have benefited from more of the goodness she was already putting on the page. It seems like this is planned as a Queer series, and I honestly can’t wait to read the next books and follow her growth.