An Astronomer in Love by Antoine Laurain


Ah yes, another delightful book by the author of The President’s Hat, Vintage 1954, and The Red Notebook. This one connects the historical figure, Guillaume le Gentil, Louis XV’s astronomer, to a fictional Parisian real estate agent in 2012. Before I began the book, I read Wikipedia’s entry about the astronomer and wonder if it is a spoiler to tell the true story of his life. If so, be alerted.

Guillaume has been described as the most unlucky astronomer. He made significant astronomical discoveries before he became a part of an international effort to establish the distance between the earth and the sun. His role was to go to Pondicherry, a city on the southeastern coast of India, to record the 1761 Transit of Venus. First there was the problem of the Seven Years War between Britain and France that slowed down his travel. After he managed to get on a frigate bound for India, it was blown off course by bad weather and he was on a sea-tossed ship on the day of the Transit.

Because the Transits of Venus come every 100+ years in pairs separated by eight years, he decided to remain in the area until the 1769 Transit. He was on site in Pondicherry, but shortly before the event, the weather became overcast and he returned home without measuring the event. His correspondence apparently had not reached home and he had been declared legally dead. He had lost his position in the Royal Academy of the Sciences and his estate lands had been taken over by relatives and litigation was required to regain what he had lost.

This gem of a story was revealed because the real estate agent discovered an ancient telescope left in an apartment he had sold. He set it up on the balcony of his apartment so his son who stayed with him every other weekend could look at the stars. It wasn’t surprising that he happened to see a woman living in an apartment nearby through his telescope, though it was surprising that she turned up at his business soon afterward looking for a new apartment. A sweet romance develops with some complications. As those are recounted, the story of Guillaume unfolds and we learn the wonderful telescope had belonged to him. All is resolved by the time they watch the June 2012 transit from the top of the Eiffel Tower, using, of course, Guillaume’s telescope.

I have not located any books about the fascinating Guillaume de Gentil. Just imagine, this man who made astronomical discoveries, living in the court of Louis XV, who was intrepid enough to take off for India and live in such an alien part of the world for years. Here’s a picture of Louis XV so you can envision that life. Guillaume lived until 1792, so he died a year before Louis XVI was beheaded. One wonders what his life was like after the Revolution in 1789.

Antoine Laurain, An Astronomer in Love, Gallic Books, 2023, 288 pages (I listened to the audiobook).

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