Books

The 18th-century astronomer who sparked a modern love story

When Antoine Laurain read an article about astronomer Guillaume le Gentil it planted the seed for a poignant historical love story

Illustration of a woman, a zebra and a man with a telescope

An Astronomer in Love by Antoine Laurain is out now (£16.99, Gallic Books). Illustration: Giovanni Simoncelli

I’m writing these lines on a train in England. It was on a train in France, six or seven years ago, that I read an article that briefly told the story of Guillaume le Gentil. It was short but the essence was there. 

A profession: astronomer. The century: the 18th. A destiny: a man who leaves for the other side of the world on the orders of the King of France, Louis XV, to observe an extremely rare astronomical phenomenon. And who returns to France 11 years later, to find that everyone had naturally assumed he had died, failing in his mission. 

I cut out the article and it sat pinned next to my desk for years. I found the story of the astronomer fascinating, but I did not feel like writing a biography or a historical book. So what to do? Eventually, I realised that there could be two parallel stories: one in the 18th century, the other present day. Two destinies could then intertwine and respond to each other through the centuries. 

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But what is an astronomer without a telescope? What happened to Guillaume the Gentil’s telescope?
A mystery. 

What if a man today found it and took it home in Paris. Placed on his balcony, he observes the moon and the stars for a bit until one day it is a woman behind a window, who shares her apartment with a zebra, who catches his gaze in a building opposite. What if he falls in love with her from afar? And so the other story began.  

The transit of Venus, since it is the name of the phenomenon in question in the novel, consists of the
passage of Venus in front of the sun. It was, in the time of Guillaume le Gentil, the only way to measure the real distance from Earth to the sun, so it was very important!

The phenomenon itself is very beautiful: a black pearl will cross the solar disk for several hours. A rare event only taking place twice, eight years apart, and then not until 120 years later. Suffice to say that if you miss the first two, there’s no chance of seeing the third.

The modern-day character of Xavier, intrigued by the telescope’s provenance, reads two enormous tomes of which he has obtained a digital copies: the memoirs of Guillaume le Gentil.

It so happened that at one point in writing this novel, I wanted to have in hand those very two original editions, just for the pleasure of leafing through them. Maybe to establish some kind of connection with him. A mystical thing. 

Less mystically, I had chosen my moment badly, it was lockdown and so all the libraries that could have held these very rare books were closed. I looked on the internet to see if there was a private library, and came across a very niche library: a private library, specialising in massage books. 

They had these two rare and very expensive volumes, because the astronomer is the first European to mention the art of massage in his writings upon his return from India. 

I called, I asked if it was possible to come and consult these books. A very friendly guy replied that he was the massage specialist and, yes, I could visit. There was no address on the site. I asked where the library was. 

The two books of the astronomer had been, for years, just one block from my house!

And this is why I included a section on massage in the book. 

I tried to write a very dynamic book that would be a travel companion, and allow readers to escape with my novels. Daily life is often boring and repetitive, but that of the astronomer was not, neither is the contemporary romance of Xavier and Alice. 

I wish you a beautiful journey with this novel, beautiful encounters with characters and amazing natural
phenomena, such as the phosphorescent sea or the meteor showers. And finding love in the end. If it’s already done, tell your love that you love them. Love is the most important thing in life. Even when you’re not an astronomer…

One last detail: while researching online I read that the astronomer, on his return, discovered that his wife had remarried. It’s wrong. Nonsense. He was in fact unmarried and had no children. This is also why he was able to be absent from home for so long. 

He will find love when he returns and I restore his honour and the truth, which is very poignant. But to know how he got there, you must read the book now. You will learn a lot about astronomy in a light-hearted way while having fun and following the two present-day characters hoping that they fall in love.

An astronaut in love book cover

An Astronomer in Love by Antoine Laurain is out now (£16.99, Gallic Books). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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