The first thing that is astonishing about this book is that it made me think that I understand astronomy, which is clearly not the case. That, in itself, is a tribute to the clarity and assurance of the writing. But this is a story about much more than astronomy, or rather where astronomy is a motor of the plot. Jeanette is an astronomer, or rather, she becomes one because she comes to love the solitude that staring at the stars requires. This is a story about someone growing up, and becoming the person that she is.
Jeanette grows up in an ordinary family where her sister Kate is the star. Family life revolves, as far as Jeanette is concerned, around her sister Kate, and her swimming ambitions. Jeanette loves her sister, but is determined not to be like her sister, which is what drives her interest in the skies, and what can be seen in them.
And one day Jeanette sees something that simply should not be there because it contradicts the theory of what should be possible. This causes a furore in the academic community. As in any academic community, when accepted theories are challenged life is not very comfortable for the people who do the challenging. Colleagues are sceptical, dubious, unconvinced, vicious, and jealous. The media leap on the discovery with something approaching glee, and certainly without any intention of trying to understand or explain the science.
If however you think that you are entering the territory of David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury you are wrong because this is not a comic novel.
Two things prevent that kind of interpretation. Jeanette enters into an ultimately disastrous relationship with a bisexual friend who has no concept of commitment to anything other than her own needs, even to the extent of whiting over her portrait of Jeanette so that she can use the canvas again.
This leads Jeanette to a confrontation with her parents when she presents them with the whited-out portrait, as a symbol of being the daughter that they have blotted out of their lives. This is the pivotal moment of the plot where Jeanette and her parents are forced to deal with the tragedy of Kate’s unexplained death.
Pippa Goldschmidt has created a story of deeply moving humanity, dealing with our failures to understand fully the people that we are closest to – our family, our friends and our lovers. She writes in a style that will keep you reading, even when you know that you do not really understand the astronomical theories being written about. She writes in a style that makes the reader fond of Jeanette.
The only thing that I cannot forgive Jeanette is that she went to Chile when Pinochet was murdering the opposition because astronomy was more important to her. Jeanette clearly has no proper sense of perspective, which is important for an astronomer.