In June, 1792, two astronomers set off from Paris on what proves to be a six year long mission to survey the meridian running through France from Dunkirk to Barcelona and thus establish a standard measure of length, the meter. Pierre Méchain and Jean-Baptiste Delambre face adversity, suspicion, danger and hardship as they struggle to complete their assignment, compounded by the turbulent politics of the French Revolution.
Denis Guedj does an admirable job bringing the era of the Revolution to life through the eyes of his two very different protagonists. Each has a distinct voice and deals with the hardships of their assignment in very different ways. Méchain has an especially hard time after enduring an almost fatal injury. Their relationship is one of mutual respect and it grows stronger, despite their separation, through semi-regular correspondence. No-one else truly understands the challenges they face and they draw on each other for strength, though Méchain is at times jealous of Delambre's early successes.
The social history and politics of the time are interwoven naturally so as not to interrupt the narrative of the main storyline. At times, however, the science is a little overwhelming for those less versed in that discipline. Overall, though, the story rattles along at a good pace, never boring and always intriguing. The various characters encountered by Méchain and Delambre add to the novel's charm, while the glimpses of such historical personages as Lavoisier, Condorcet and Borda further ground it in the period.
I also feel it necessary to praise the translator of this work, Arthur Goldhammer. His English prose is flawless and had I not been told, I'd never have guessed this work was a translation.
Reading this engrossing book was pure pleasure and I recommend it to all.
© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2002
This review first appeared in the May 2002 issue of The Historical Novels Review.