Patrick Ross's Reviews > Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love

Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel
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bookshelves: biography, history, science

Dava Sobel's "Longitude" is a masterpiece that first inspired me to consider writing creative nonfiction; I gave it a 5. Her "A More Perfect Heaven" suffers a bit from a lack of research material, but I applauded her creative approach to dealing with that by crafting a fictional three-act play in the middle of the book combining fact and conjecture; I gave it a 4. I mentioned both books in my MFA graduation lecture on creative nonfiction biography. I've put off for years reading Galileo's Daughter, and now that I have, I must say that it falls short of those other Sobel works.

Galileo is a fascinating figure, and so much of his story--the debate between observational science and stubborn ignorance--resonates in today's society. We all must learn more about Galileo, a pious man, and his struggle with a church that couldn't accept the idea that it could embrace science simultaneous with belief. The problem is the construct Sobel has attempted to differentiate herself from other Galileo biographers.

As the title suggests, she's chosen to architect the book around a collection of letters Galileo's daughter--a lifelong nun first put into the convent as a child, because as an illegitimate daughter he felt she'd have no future--wrote to her father. We learn in the introduction all of Galileo's responses--which would be fascinating primary material to be sure--were likely burned. So instead we spend a lot of time with Suor Maria Celeste. Can I just be honest here? The life of a 17th Century Italian monk does not a compelling book make. This problem is compounded by the painful obsequiousness of the daughter's letters. They are so beseeching, so meek, so tiresome. It is in part a reflection of the writing style of the past, but also the difference in station--a quite huge difference--between Suor Maria Celeste and Galileo. But it's hard to read.

I found myself skimming the nunnery sections to get back to the more compelling narrative, Galileo's discoveries, writing, trial, punishment, and recovery. Here Suor Maria Celeste's letters provide occasional context, but Sobel clearly is crafting the story from more informative sources. Ultimately the book fails to live up to its premise; I wish at some point Sobel realized this inevitability, and restructured the book accordingly. That said, Sobel is a gifted biographer, and you'll enjoy the time you spend with Galileo in this book.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
March 1, 2014 – Finished Reading
April 2, 2014 – Shelved
April 2, 2014 – Shelved as: biography
April 2, 2014 – Shelved as: history
April 2, 2014 – Shelved as: science

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