Do not – I repeat – do not start the last one hundred pages of Lawrence Goldstone’s The Astronomer if anything or anyone will demand your attention before you finish it. Warm the coffee, bolt the door, turn off the phone, and then settle in for takeoff.
The novel is set primarily in 16th-century France, at a time when the Reformation and new scientific ideas were challenging the Catholic power structure. Through protagonist Amaury Faverges, the reader is brought into a number of communities involved in that struggle, from the dreary and brutally austere college of theology where the opening scenes are set, to the secret meeting rooms of persecuted Lutherans, to the French court of the self-absorbed King François and the open-minded court of his sister Marguerite of Navarre, and finally to the cloistered tower of physician-astronomer Copernicus in Poland. Along the way, freethinking Amaury’s ideas are challenged as frequently as his life is threatened, and simple ideas of right and wrong, heresy and piety, heroism and cowardice give way to a more nuanced, although sadder and more skeptical view of humankind. Horrific scenes of brutality in the streets contrast with cool and almost bloodless depictions of the halls of power.
The tension rises toward a tumultuous conclusion, as Amaury braves the nearly impenetrable wilderness and brutal weather of Poland to arrive at Copernicus’ solitary hideaway before the scholar can be murdered and twenty years of work proving the heliocentric theory can be destroyed. The last few pages of this vivid and lucidly written novel reveal that nothing in life turns out quite as predicted, but that reinvention of the self in new circumstances is always possible, and that being true to oneself may lead to a happier, fuller life.