Summary and book reviews of The Blind Astronomer's Daughter by John Pipkin

The Blind Astronomer's Daughter

by John Pipkin

The Blind Astronomer's Daughter by John Pipkin X
The Blind Astronomer's Daughter by John Pipkin
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2016, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2017, 480 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Book Summary

A novel of the obsessions of the age: scientific inquiry, geographic discovery, political reformation, but above all, astronomy, the mapping of the solar system and beyond. It is a novel of the quest for knowledge and for human connection - rich, far-reaching, and unforgettable.

In late-eighteenth-century Ireland, accidental stargazer Caroline Ainsworth learns that her life is not what it seems when her father, Arthur, throws himself from his rooftop observatory. Caroline had often assisted her father with his observations, in pursuit of an unknown planet; when astronomer William Herschel discovered Uranus, Caroline could only watch helplessly as unremitting jealousy drove Arthur to madness. Now, gone blind from staring at the sun, he has chosen death over a darkened life.

Grief-stricken, Caroline abandons the vain search, leaves Ireland for London, and tries to forget her love for Finnegan O'Siodha, the tinkering blacksmith who was helping her father build a telescope larger than his rival's. But her father has left her more than the wreck of that unfinished instrument: his cryptic atlas holds the secret to finding a new world at the edge of the sky. As Caroline reluctantly resumes her father's work and confronts her own longings, Ireland is swept into rebellion, and Caroline and Finnegan are plunged into its violence.

Chapter I

WHAT HE SEES AT THE END

IN THE WINTER of 1791, some few weeks after Arthur Ainsworth's penumbral blindness reaches its inevitable and irreversible completion, he grunts for an inkpot, fumbles after dull quills, scavenges whatever paper is immediate to hand, and so begins to set down, in a desperate and meandrous splatter, an atlas that will guide his daughter to the elusive planet they have spent the better part of their lives pursuing. Sudden and unexpected, what he sees is no easy thing to convey. Here in his shuttered bedroom at New Park, high above the River Nore, just beyond the town of Inistioge in southern Ireland, the bedridden astronomer fingers the ribbon of silk tied over his eyes and works through the long calculations cluttering his thoughts. He strains his memory, calls on meticulous observations from years before, but now they carry him only part of the way.

Propped on blankets flecked with ink, he chews the tangle of gray hairs hanging past his ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Compare and contrast the experiences of Caroline Herschel and Siobhan Ainsworth. Both women are considered outcasts due to their gender and physical disabilities. How do they each overcome their disadvantages? Explore the many similarities in their stories and how their common experiences shape them as women and as scientists. In what ways does Caroline Herschel serve as a foil for Siobhan?
  2. Pipkin delves into the struggle and invisibility of women in science by examining the true story of Caroline Herschel and the fictional accounts of Siobhan Ainsworth and the Seven Sisters. How were each of these women erased and/or celebrated by their male counterparts? Discuss the irony of the Seven Sisters' world-renowned mirror business and ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The plot takes a while to get up and running, and even when it does, proceeds slowly. To be fair, it takes time to construct a story that is as big as the heavens. The scope of The Blind Astronomer's Daughter may be a bit too big, its cast a bit too populous, but the final chapters redeem these minor flaws...continued

Full Review (674 words).

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(Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A fascinating look at the particular manias and obsessions of those who study the stars amid turmoil on Earth.

Booklist
This lyrical, philosophical book both frustrates and delights. Its focus on discovery is similar to that in Michael Byers' Percival's Planet, and Pipkin's poetic language will remind readers of Dava Sobel's essay collection, The Planets (2005). Herschel's story is also fictionalized in Carrie Brown's The Stargazer's Sister (2016).

Library Journal
Starred Review. A pleasurable read for lovers of historical fiction and for those longing for reassurance that following one's passion does indeed lead to healing and belonging.

Author Blurb Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab's Wife and The Fountain of St. James Court, of Portrait of the Artist as an old woman
Utilizing history and imagination, Pipkin creates characters--most memorably two complex and touching women, both called Caroline--who are formed by both their innate gifts and a world flawed by violence and injustice. He brings them all together with a force as effective and inclusive as gravity.

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Beyond the Book

William and Caroline Herschel

John Pipkin brings the astronomer siblings, William and Caroline Herschel, vividly to life in The Blind Astronomer's Daughter. While the novel shines light on Caroline in particular, William, with his impressive discoveries and status as England's astronomy golden boy, provides motivation for the fictional Arthur Ainsworth's quest for renown.

William and Caroline Herschel were born in Hanover in 1738 and 1750, respectively. Today, Hanover is part of Germany; at the time it was a state within the Holy Roman Empire and the birthplace of both George I and II. George III was born in England and was simultaneously King of The United Kingdom and Hanover - although he apparently never visited the latter. Upon the invasion of the French in 1757,...

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