Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Stargazer's Sister

Title:  The Stargazer's Sister
Author:  Carrie Brown
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2016. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0804197938 / 978-0804197939

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The wind is with them, and she watches from the ship's rail as the hard places disappear, fortress and stony beach and the long humped quay at Hellevoetsluis, the church and bell tower reduced in minutes to dark notches on the horizon."

Favorite Quote:  "I should have had independence to do my own deeds, for good or ill."

Caroline "Lina" Herschel is the "stargazer's sister," but she is so much more than that. She was an astronomer in her own right. She is credited with the discovery of several comets, including one named after her. She was the first woman to paid for her work as a scientist, and one of the first to be publicly acknowledged for her contributions. Yet, she is perhaps best known for her work in support of her brother, astronomer William Herschel, who is credited with many advances in astronomy  including the discovery of Uranus as a planet.

Born in Germany, Lina's childhood is spent with her parents and brothers. Her mother and one brother are particularly abusive towards her, while William and her father provide some shelter. She functions pretty much as a servant of the household. To make matters worse, a childhood illness forever scars her face and stunts her growth.

William leaves to seek his own way in England. He eventually returns when Lina is in her twenties, and becomes her escape route. Yet, even in her life with William, Lina remains as much a housekeeper as before. She handles all of the practical details of William's life and works along side him in his astronomy endeavors. That is, until William marries. Lina finds herself sidelined, and a new chapter of life begins.

The book description makes William's marriage a central element to the plot. Much to my surprise, the marriage occurs over 200 pages into the book. The book covers Lina's life well before and well after the marriage. Of course, this change in her relationship with William has an impact, but it is not as central to the book as the one I expected based on the book description. So many other things determines the direction of Lina's line.

The science of stars forms the background of this book, but this is the story of the girl and woman Lina. The vastness of the night sky form a backdrop, providing the beauty and the philosophy that underlie Lina's story. Oddly, the descriptions of the stars are not as visually arresting or memorable as I would have expected. What is more memorable is the science and the equipment that William and Lina develop.

The book also has an undertone of physicality running throughout. Lina's life is irrevocably altered by a childhood illness. She is convinced that she can in no way be desirable to a man. Yet, she spends much time contemplating her physical nature and the desires that raises. On the flip side, many instances of the physical impact of illness and injury are described in detail. Oddest of all, innuendos and hints are found throughout the book about the physical closeness between brother and sister. The book makes no presumption or judgment about that relationship, but suggestive hints abound. These descriptions highlight the point that this is the story of a woman who happened to be a scientist and not a scientist who happened to be a woman. The focus forever remains on the woman, but I would rather hear about the scientist.

I am not sure what it is about this book. It introduces me to some historical figures about whom I knew nothing. It teaches me about astronomy and the telescopes the Herschel's built. I separate fact from fiction by doing some research about the actual life of William and Caroline Herschel. I enjoy the story but don't fall in love with it. At the end, I feel as if I still don't really know the characters. I know about Lina and William, but I don't know them.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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