I was fascinated and thoroughly enjoyed The Stargazer’s Sister last year, a novel about Caroline Herschel, the sister of eighteenth century astronomer William Herschel who became a prolific astronomer in her own right. The description for The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter promised to explore similar themes in a similar setting. While there are elements of what I was expecting—hoping—to find in the novel, Pipkin goes beyond focusing on his titular heroine and not always with tremendous success.
Fictitious astronomer Arthur Ainsworth is determined to find a new planet in the heavens so he can name it for his late wife and honor her legacy. It is a mission he enlists his daughter, Caroline, to help him with as he transforms his Irish estate into an observatory and commissions work on a telescope to rival that of William Herschel in England. But there is more going on in Ireland and there are more secrets in Caroline’s past than she is aware of until her father, blinded by looking too often at the sun through his telescope, dies. She learns the truth of who she is and it upends everything she once thought about herself, her father, and his work. It will take many years for Caroline to pick up the pieces of her shattered self and reassemble them into someone new, just as Ireland threatens to rip itself apart in 1798.
Since the book is called, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, I had thought there would be some measure of consistent narrative focus on Caroline, even when the novel deviated into perspectives that were tangential to her. And by the end of the novel that is ultimately the case, but for so much of the book the tangential narratives felt a bit too distant and irrelevant to Caroline for my patience. Similarly, the exploration of eighteenth century astronomy was a huge part of what drew me to the novel—and both William and Caroline Herschel make brief, disjointed appearances periodically. But there was a massive chunk of the book that involved the Irish Rebellion of 1798, a subject I admittedly knew little about and do intend to learn more about now, but which isn’t explored in the depths necessary to make it particularly relevant to the story at hand; it is simply something that was going on during part of the time in which the story takes place.
The Irish Rebellion, as is the case with many chapters and scenes in the novel, feels like a plot point and little more. While the book is very carefully crafted and the prose itself is absolutely wonderful (there are many gorgeous, quotable passages in which astronomical metaphors and analogies shine), the story as a whole just doesn’t hold together very well for me. I like a few of the characters but others seem so loosely connected to whatever might be considered the main thrust of the story that they distract rather than contribute to the sum total. Despite its length, it felt like a detailed outline, lacking the emotional resonance that is necessary to drive the novel’s themes home.
The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter will be available October 11, 2016.