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Galileo's Daughter

It doesn’t sound like best-seller material, but Dava Sobel’s sparkling book about the 17th-century astronomer and the child who inspired him has turned into an out-of-this-world hit.

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The directions to Dava Sobel’s East Hampton home are flawless. This is unlikely, because the small shingled saltbox is tucked away on a tree-clotted road, past the very proper town proper, past several tidy graveyards, past signs for deer crossings, and still farther.

But Sobel, 52, is a woman at ease with navigation. In 1995, she wrote a book, Longitude, an astonishingly improbable international best-seller about, literally, the quest to calculate longitude. The book hinges on the story of an 18th-century English clock maker, John Harrison, who ”wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch.”

Last month, Sobel presented her follow-up, Galileo’s Daughter, about, literally, Galileo’s daughter: a bastard child, a cloistered nun, a clever woman who mended the collars of the famed astronomer and wrote him warm, earnest, occasionally chiding letters, 124 of which survive. Sobel uses these letters to humanize the tale of Galileo’s navigational quest — to prove that the sun, not the earth, is the center of our solar system, a proposition that put him famously in conflict with the 17th-century Catholic church—and, less famously, with his own deep faith. The book has received stellar reviews and is shooting up the best-seller lists.

Sobel, however, doesn’t want to talk about her writing quite yet, or about the explosive life changes success has thrust upon her, or much about herself at all. She wants to make you a sandwich. Then she wants to get you something to drink. Then she wants to know if you’d rather take a walk, or would prefer sitting on the back deck. And if you’d prefer sitting on the back deck, would you like a wrap?

It’s the kind of graciousness one expects of a writer who has reached through the brambled, layered detritus of hundreds of years, retrieved a forgotten clock maker and a lost daughter, and gently restored these strangers to all their joyful, proud, petulant, toothachy genuineness. ”People often refer to these books as novels,” she says. ”I take that as a compliment.”

Sobel is a modest, tiny woman with thick white hair and bright hazel eyes, who, when not popping up to fetch mugs of hot tea or more sugar, sits…very…still. Which must feel lovely because she’s just returned from overseas — her bags lie unpacked in the study — where she attended a London screening of the upcoming TV-movie version of Longitude, and submitted to more interviews than she wanted to. ”It’s so strange, because I still look at Longitude as this weird little project of mine,” Sobel says. ”Everybody laughed at me the whole time I was working on it.”

Sobel herself had little cause for levity. The book was written piecemeal in 1995, a year of ”great flux.” She and her husband had separated, leaving her to care for their school-age children, Zoe and Isaac. A veteran science reporter, Sobel wrote freelance articles to try to stay solvent. But when she gave Longitude to her tiny New York publisher, Walker and Co., she was $30,000 in the hole. The advance printing of the book: a paltry 7,702 copies.