2024 Reading Challenge

2024 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 1 book toward her goal of 285 books.

2023 Reading Challenge

2023 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 5 books toward her goal of 265 books.

Excerpt: An Astronomer in Love by Antoine Laurain (Author), Louise Rogers Lalaurie (Translator), Megan Jones (Translator)

About the Book

In 1760, Guillaume le Gentil, real-life astronomer to King Louis XV, sets out for the oceans of India to document the transit of Venus. The weather is turbulent, the seas are rough and his quest may be more complicated than initially thought.

250 years later, estate agent Xavier Lemercier chances upon Guillaume’s telescope in a property he’s sold. As he looks out across the rooftops of Paris, he discovers an intriguing woman with a zebra in her apartment.

Then the woman walks through the doors of his office, and his life changes forever . . .

The Excerpt

On the twenty-sixth of March 1760, Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil de La Galaisiere, astronomer to the Academie Royale des Sciences, boarded the fifty-gun ship Le Berryer in the French port of Lorient, bound for India. As the naval vessel put to sea, he just about managed to cling to the mast – his silver-buckled, patent-leather shoes had almost caused him to lose his footing on the slippery deck. A stiff Breton gale whipped his blue frock coat and lace jabot, and he pressed his right hand firmly to the crown of his three-cornered black felt hat. The start of a long and perilous voyage. When a man set sail to journey halfway around the globe, there was no knowing, in those days, whether he would be seen alive again. Guillaume Le Gentil was travelling on the orders of His Majesty Louis XV, charged with a precise mission – for which he was most uniquely qualified – to measure, with the aid of his telescopes and astronomical instruments, the true (rather than the supposed) distance from the Earth to the sun, on the occasion of the transit of Venus across our star.

The small planet named for the Goddess of Love took an unusual sequence of turns across the sun’s disc, to say the least: one passage was followed by a second 8 years later, after which a whole 122 years would pass before the next. Then another 8 year interval, but after that, it would be 105 years until another transit could be observed.

The alternating sequence of 8, 122 and 105 years was unchanged since the creation of the universe itself.

Guillaume Le Gentil had taken every care not to miss the exceptional observations he would make from Pondicherry on 6 June 1761, more than a year after his departure from France. Thanks to which he might, perhaps, become the first man to measure the true distance between the Earth and the star that is the source of all its light.

Everything was prepared down to the last detail, and yet nothing whatsoever would go as planned.



You are alive. Everything is fine.

You are sitting down. Feel the weight of your body, the weight of your feet and your hands.

Take note of the sounds that surround you.

The familiar female voice was reassuring. It was the same for every session. Xavier Lemercier was on his fifteenth daily session of so-called ‘mindful’ meditation. This scientific practice had been one of his discoveries when he’d tried to quit smoking. Until now, Xavier had never got into meditation, and as a matter of principle he was hesitant about this sort of thing, imagining it to be full of obscure phrases, with echoes of the New Age and cheap shamanism. ‘Imagine you are a fox. Feel the flower within you.’ ‘Turn your heart towards the eternal Planet Gaia, nurturing mother of all living things.’ But that wasn’t the case with the app he had downloaded, the only goal of which was to establish thirty-minute pauses each day, and to quieten the frenetic buzz of thoughts that intruded upon every moment like so many wasps. Now the habit of returning to the voice and its soothing phrases was almost as pleasant as pouring oneself a cold aperitif on a sunny terrace after a day’s work. For thirty minutes a day, Xavier almost managed to forget his worries, which, for him, was no small feat.

Now, when you feel ready, leave your thoughts behind and let’s hegin the hody scan.

The body scan consisted of mentally sweeping the body, from the tip of your toes to the top of your head, locating any points of discomfort. Xavier often noted a pain in his lower back and a tightness in his stomach.

He had been anxious for two long months. His estate agency was stagnating. Sales were inexplicably few and far between. Admittedly, the Parisian market was over-inflated; prices weren’t going down, but by 2012 fewer people were interested in buying and selling property. The usual indicators – household consumption, buying power, the stock market – hardly accounted for the weak sales. But the ‘market stakeholders’, according to their sacred slogan, all gave the same report: not much was going on at the moment. The most robust among them were unfazed, or seemed to be, but the more fragile ones were beginning to ask themselves questions. The Lemercier and Bricard agency had been well established for twenty years now. Xavier had started out in the Parisian real-estate market with a friend from business school. Now forty-seven years old, Xavier was left as the sole head of Lemercier and Bricard. When someone asked for ‘Monsieur Bricard ‘, Xavier replied, calmly, that he was on a business trip. An agency with two names lent it a more reputable air, suggesting a solid team and numerous colleagues at the ready.

Bruno Bricard, his partner who was ‘on a business trip’, had suddenly decided to return to the countryside two years ago. Tired of city life, tired of all the commuting and the pollution, he told his friend that he wanted to sell his shares. Along with his wife and two children, he had overhauled his life by buying, for the price of their Parisian apartment, a seventeenth-century mansion with eighteen hectares of land in the Dordogne, which they planned to turn into a bed and breakfast. During his last months at the agency, Bruno had tried over and over again to convince Xavier to do the same, with persuasive drawings, surveys and projections detailing how cities would soon become saturated with fine particulate matter and pollution, invaded by cars that reproduced like rabbits. Bruno was certainly right, at least in part, but Xavier couldn’t see himselfliving in the countryside. Also, Bruno had his family with him, which was no longer the case for Xavier. Since his difficult divorce from Celine, there had been no other women, and he had joint custody of his eleven-year-old son, Olivier. When he presented this argument to his colleague, Bruno could only agree, chastened. ‘Yes, you’re right. It’s more complicated for you,’ he had admitted.

It seemed to Xavier that his life had gone off track at some point, and he had trouble pinpointing that particular moment. Often, he felt like a bachelor with no future, selling apartments to other people who were full of energy and ambition, so that they could build their lives there. These were the kind of plans that no longer seemed within his reach.

Nothing is really that complicated.

The things you perceive as difficult are most often just mental blocks.

You’re adding layers of unnecessary and unproductive anxiety.

Set them aside.


Nothing is especially complicated on board a ship, except when the vessel climbs up, then plummets down waves the height of a tall building, when seasickness strikes, and when a man suffers from claustrophobia. The captain of the Berryer, Louis de Vauquois, had been instructed by the Due de La Vrilliere to take great care of his astronomer. Guillaume Le Gentil wore a greenish pallor and a fixed stare whenever they ran into a storm. He said his prayers more often than the crew, but on a calm sea, on a sunny day, he was a delightful travelling companion indeed. The astronomer proved most useful, too: his precisely calibrated instruments provided the captain with measurements and information unmarked on his maps. Le Gentil plotted their course by observing the stars and the moon. On occasion, he succeeded in correcting the Berryer’s distance from land by several nautical miles. The great copper-and-brass telescope that he used for his observations, bright as gold on its tripod, had attracted Vauquois’s admiration. Guillaume Le Gentil had invited him to put his eye to the small glass when the instrument was pointed at the full moon. What Vauquois saw took his breath away: the Earth’s satellite loomed so large that its craters could be seen as clearly as the Saint-Malo lighthouse on his ship’s return to port. On another occasion, the captain pointed out a streak of light in the sky that had been following them, to all appearances, for the past half-hour or more. Straightaway, Le Gentil fetched another telescope, shorter and thicker in diameter, standing on a single foot. The object was a comet, and squinting into his lens, the astronomer could just about make out its tail. For the next eight days, he busied himself with quill pen and compasses, darkening the pages of several notebooks in an attempt to calculate the comet’s speed. The challenge filled him with delight, and as they approached the Cape of Good Hope, in fine weather, he forgot his fears of life afloat, even his seasickness. He took luncheon and dinner in the captain’s quarters, feasting on succulent grilled fish unlike any in France. One morning, the Berryer’s nets even brought in a squid the size of a horse, with tentacles as long as the ship itself from prow to poop. The crew chopped it to pieces with their axes and the cook emptied an entire barrel of wine into several cast-iron cauldrons, so as to stew it in a heady court-bouillon of his own invention. That same evening, the entire company savoured the giant cephalopod’s tender, salty flesh. The unexpected catch prompted tales of the terrifying sea creatures so often depicted in engravings, though it was never clear whether these were the fruit of man’s imagination or a record of genuine sightings. According to the mariners, the strong currents and headwinds off the Cape of Good Hope sometimes gave a rare glimpse of the dreaded Caracac. The captain had never seen it, but he knew its description from the accounts of others. From his bookshelves, he produced a vast tome that must have taken the hides of a couple of fat sows for its binding, and opened it on a well-thumbed page. Guillaume Le Gentil bent over the book to discover a woodcut of a monster that resembled a scorpion fish as big as the Berryer. The creature’s gaping jaws were easily five times the size of the great iron gates of Versailles, and from the top of its head a jet of water shot up like a fountain. The astronomer felt an icy shiver down his spine. If ever he crossed the monster’s path, said Vauquois, in conclusion, he prayed God would come to his aid. Then he crossed himself and slammed the volume shut.

A few days later, Le Gentil stepped up to the bridge as the ship began its course around the southernmost tip of Africa. Standing close by the rail, he saw a great mass emerge from the waves, muscular, grey and gleaming, its skin tanned by the salt of the deep. A spout of water and air burst forth, rising to a height of fifty feet or more. Guillaume’s heart stopped: the woodcut was made flesh. The Caracac was preparing to dive, and it would take the entire ship down with it.

He had never seen a whale, not even in a book, and now they surrounded the ship in great numbers, their blowholes spouting both to port and starboard, to the delight of the mariners who broke into hearty, rousing song. Reassured, Guillaume Le Gentil took a pair of steel-framed spectacles from his waistcoat pocket. They had been made to order by Margissier, who crafted all the lenses for his telescopes. The spectacles comprised two circles of ink-black glass, through which he could observe the sun with no risk to his eyes. He thought of Hortense, the wife he had left behind in Paris, who would have to wait for him for almost a year and a half. He pictured her in the silence of their lodgings, her slender fingers embroidering a delicate motif on a tablecloth, while his ship plied the waves with its escort of sperm whales. He was smiling at the thought of all he would tell her on his return, when a sudden gust of wind snatched the three­ cornered black felt hat from his head. It came to land on the back of a nearby whale, from where, just as suddenly, it shot high into the air atop a powerful jet of water.


Xavier thought of her often. Nothing had worked with Celine. Could he ever have imagined that the wonderful moment of their first meeting would end, twelve years later, in court, with the decree absolute of a divorce judgement? Their story was just so ordinary, and it was this very ordinariness that made it all the more final. In its lack of originality there was no opportunity for a sudden change of heart. No, the banality of the statistics loomed large: one in two marriages end in divorce. The statistics were like a steamroller. A 50 per cent chance. Three years after a painful separation that had turned poisonous in its last few months, Xavier still found himself thinking about it several times a week. When the voice said: If your thoughts are wandering, gently but firmly bring your attention back to your breathing, he knew very well that such wandering would lead to the corridors of the Palais de Justice, to his lawyer, Maitre Murier, and Celine’s lawyer, Maitre Guerinon, and to her friends’ false testimonies, which described Xavier as a domestic tyrant who had Celine and their son living in a state of permanent terror. It would lead to the enormous demands of child support and his son,0 livier, whom Celine had full custody of that first year, and whom she had turned against him by telling him the divorce was all Xavier’s fault. Bruno had been a great help during that difficult period, and a few good apartment sales at high prices had helped Xavier weather the storm. He had come out of it exhausted, but the seas were calmer after that, and he had managed to patch things up a little with Olivier. Xavier had made the decision never to speak badly of Celine in front of his son. This strategy of appeasement had worked in his favour, because Celine had relentlessly continued her character assassination of Xavier in front of the young boy. For a few months now, Olivier had seemed less susceptible to his mother’s tactics.

The gong that signalled the end of the session chimed and Xavier opened his eyes. Sunlight flooded the sixty-square-metre apartment that he now called home. His job had helped with that, at least. He sold their 130-square-metre Haussmannian apartment in the best market conditions and used his contacts to find a quiet, well-located new one. There was one room for him, another for his son and a large balcony looking onto a courtyard that was usually deserted. It seemed to him that, in this life, nothing of significance would happen from now on.

Xavier got up from his chair and stretched. It was time to go to the agency.

Frederic Chamois, his trainee, had received two phone calls. One was a request to view an eighty-square-metre apartment overlooking the courtyard, on the fifth floor with a lift – a good prospect that he’d had for sale for three months. The other phone call was from the new owners of the last apartment he’d sold before the noticeable recent decline in the market. Madame Carmillon had told him that a cupboard in the hallway hadn’t been cleared by the previous owners. She had asked the agency to tell them to collect their belongings so she could use the cupboard. Having finished the refurbishments, the Carmillons had apparently just moved in.

‘Did you complete the inventory of fixtures and fittings, Frederic?’ asked Xavier.

‘Y-y-y-yes,’ said the young man. ‘I-1-1 don’t remember a full cupboard.’

‘Me neither,’ Xavier agreed. ‘Oh well.’

Frederic Chamois had a stammer. His stammer varied depending on the day and, mostly, depending on the rain. Xavier had noticed that ‘Chamois’ – he always called him by his last name – stammered less when it was raining. He had been very careful not to share that observation with him.

Xavier left the old owners a message. The following day there was no response, nor the day after. The contents of the cupboard must have been of no great importance, and Xavier was not surprised that there was no sign of life from the previous occupants. Once people have sold an asset, they don’t like to return to it or hear any more about it. After they’ve cashed their cheque, they move on, forgetting even the face of the estate agent who negotiated the sale. Xavier’s phone rang. MARCHANDEAU BANK appeared on the screen.

‘Monsieur Lemercier, hello,’ said his account manager. ‘Are you in Paris, or overseas on business?’

‘I’m in Paris, at my agency,’ Xavier replied.

‘As I suspected,’ said the banker. ‘Six hundred and fifty euros have been debited from your account, from Hong Kong. Your card has been hacked. I’ll take care of it and I’ll call you back, Monsieur Lemercier.’

-copyright 2023, Antoine Laurain

About the Author

Antoine Laurain is a novelist, screenwriter, journalist, director and collector of antique keys. He is the author of the best-selling novels The President’s Hat and The Red Notebook.

A truly born and bread Parisian, after studying film, he began his career directing short films and writing screenplays. His passion for art led him to take a job assisting an antiques dealer in Paris. The experience provided the inspiration for his first novel, The Portrait,winner of the Prix Drouot.

Published on the eve of the French presidential elections of 2012, Antoine’s, fairytale-like novel The President’s Hat was acclaimed by critics, readers and booksellers, who awarded it the Prix Landerneau Découvertes. In the UK, it was a Waterstones Book Club and ABA Indies Introduce pick. Unsurprisingly, the novel quickly climbed into a Kindle Top 5 bestseller. This novel, full of Parisian charm, was the winner of the Prix Relay des Voyageurs, a prize which celebrates the enjoyment of reading. Since then, The President’s Hat has been adapted for television in France.

Antoine’s novels have been translated into 14 languages, including Arabic and Korean. Sales of his books across all formats in English have surpassed 155,000 copies. And The Red Notebook (2015) has become one of Gallic Books’ bestsellers both in the UK and the USA.

Also published: French Rhapsody (2016) The Portrait (2017) and Smoking Kills (2018)

Sign up for Antoine Laurain’s newsletter and keep up to date with his upcoming novels, book signings and events near you: https://signup.e2ma.net/signup/1874646/1807059/

Author photo credit: Pascal Ito © Flammarion

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