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on 2 October 2006
This book is actually a collection of different topics weaved together with the background of the love story between a lowly French scientist and an upperclass Ecuadorian lady.

The book starts with a historical science controversy, between Cassini and Newton, regarding the actual shape of the earth. Cassini thought the world was elongated and Newton argued it was fat at the Equator. In order to reach a conclusion, a team is put together to make physical experiments at the Equator to define the shape of the Earth. That is when La Condamine and Louis Godin come in, two top French scientists, who embark on this years long trip. What should have lasted two years takes more than ten. A large group is put together to support the scientist in their journey.

The author also describes in great detail the society into which they are initially welcomed in Ecuador. However difficulties with clergy and governors arise, culminating in the public lynching of the doctor of the expedition.

All this occurs before we get to the story of Jean Godin and Isabel Grameson. Jean is the nephew of the scientist Louis Godin and Isabel is the daghter of a rich landowner in Ecuador. They begin their life together in Ecuador during the expedition and then decide to stay on for a while, but when Jean's business enterprises go bankrupt he decides to go back to France with his wife and now large family of four children. He heads through the Amazon, a dangerous journey, in the hopes of figuring out the way and then coming back to get his wife. For a number of reasons, once he is done and safely at the mouth of the Amazon, he does not go back. So, after her four children die of various diseases, Izabel gets tired of waiting and heads on her own journey across the Amazon. And that is when the story happens, which I will not ruin by telling here.

This book mixed history, science, adventure and love quite well. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in South American history, history of science, love and adventure stories. It is a timeless classic, a story that enthralled people in the 18th century and continues to do so today.
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on 3 June 2012
Despite what other reviewers have said, I think this is one of the best books I've read in a long time. However, don't be fooled by the title. It is not just a love story. Anyone looking solely for historical romance, will be bored and disappointed. However, if you are willing to give the book a chance anyway, you will find a fascinating history of one of the great questions of science. The first part of the book focuses on an expedition of French scientists in Peru measuring a degree of arc at the equator. The history of how the shape of the earth was understood and the subsequent story of the expedition are fascinating and you'll breeze through the chapters. Just like Dava Sobel's Longitude, the Mapmakers Wife reads like a novel, but is non-fiction writing at its best. In the second half we learn that one member, Jean Godin, has married a local girl, Isabel Grameson. When they decide to leave for France, he makes his way down the Amazon ahead of her with the promise to return as soon as possible and pick her up. What follows is a twenty year separation and a tragic tale of one woman's unbelievable perseverance through the Amazon jungle. Due to political and bureaucratic problems, Godin is unable to return to Riobamba by way of the Amazon. Why he didn't arrange a different route remains a mystery and Whitaker tells us "he never gave such options a thought." Instead Isabel, her two brothers and her seven-year old nephew make their way down the Amazon with a small party of helpers . The Amazon jungle itself is a character in the book and you would never realize how hard it would be to survive there. One would think that food, at least, would be widely available, but sadly we learn that it is hardly different than had they gotten lost in a desert. I think I read the whole book in two sessions. As cliché as this might sound, I simply could not put it down.
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on 1 September 2011
Perhaps the title of the book is a little misleading as much of the story focusses on the quest by a group of french scientists to discover the exact shape of the earth. The dramatic journey of the mapmaker's wife through the perils of the Amazonian rain forest only unfold in the last third of the book. But that said, I was totally absorbed from start to finish. The balance between scientific fact, political intrigue and personal drama was very well tuned. It beats a lot of modern travel tales hands down! I loved it.
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on 4 November 2013
This book was for me a great read. Not what I expected but full of superb information and the 'love story' was so touching, just had to wait quite a while for it to come out. I thought it was a fabulous read.
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on 13 April 2016
Bought a second copy of this to read it again after I loaned the original one to someone a few years ago and he never returned it.
I bought this originally because it was of interest to me as a former land surveyor. The first part of the book of a technical nature but still very readable for any layman interested in the topic. It then develops into a first rate survival adventure story.
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on 16 June 2010
Following some days spent in Quito, I bought this book to quench my thirst for background history to Equador. I was not disappointed. It is well written, and much of the material appears to be backed up with a comprehensive set of references - some of which I look forward to taking up. I wish I had realised before reading the book tha there was a list of characters at the end. I did waste quite a bit of time keep going back reminding myself who was who.
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on 16 September 2013
Badly named, badly described on the back cover, and badly edited. The author obviously actually wanted to write a book about the expedition which led to Isabel Godin (the "mapmaker's wife) meeting her husband, but instead either he or his publishers decided to pretend it was a book about her. Her story takes up at a stretch maybe 1/4 of the book; the rest is about the expedition. And there's no reason not to write a book about the expedition, so the reason to market it differently really makes no sense. There's also no reason not to write a book about Isabel Godin, and she deserves more than a book pretending to be about her when she is basically just thrown in for a little to justify the title. The book is also terribly edited--the author constantly goes off on little tangents which offer interesting facts about the rainforest or the history of the area but do not add to the subject at hand; they basically add up to a lot of interesting unrelated facts which do not tell us anything about either the expedition or Isabel. The author also has a bad habit of telling us what Isabel is thinking when she does feature, when he could have no idea what she was thinking about, and he seems constantly surprised that a woman could have any gumption at all; he does not treat the males in the story the same way (apparently she spent a lot of time thinking about love, being devoted to her husband, being frightened of animals, and worrying about her appearance more than her health after wandering alone through the jungle for weeks). He has an odd way of phrasing things--whites mating with Negroes, for example. And why he constantly uses the word Negro (he doesn't use the word Caucasian) is beyond me; this book is recent, not 100 years old. He chooses strange sources to quote, as well; for instance at one point he quotes a passage from one of the expedition members stating that African women in South America have such long, flexible breasts that they sling them over their shoulders to breastfeed their babies. The author never questions this, and what it has to do with the expedition or Isabel is beyond me--it just seems thrown in as a "wacky" "fact" to entertain. He also quotes sources about the weather in the area from 100 years after the events of the book and jumps back & forth in time when describing how hard it is to travel in the Amazon--I'm not sure how knowing what it's like now helps anyone understand what the people in the book went through (it seems like the modern stuff is yet more random facts thrown in because the author feels they are interesting). Other things which have relevance to the story are mentioned in passing--for instance, why does being short make you more likely to live longer in starvation mode? He states that it does, but not why. And yet other things are brought up without much thought--he states that Isabel's hair turned grey in the jungle, probably due to lack of vitamins, but since he keeps mentioning that she is middle-aged (apparently this also helped her survive her starved state, tho he never explains why that helped her and not her middle-aged brothers), did it not perhaps also happen because of her age? None of that is discussed, but there are lots of tangents about other people who survived being stranded in the elements in totally unrelated incidents.
So, to sum it all up, badly written, badly edited, and badly presented. If I pick up a book expecting to read about a woman who travelled through the Amazon, then I expect the *bulk* of the book to be about her, not a few pages at the end. I also don't expect a barrage of facts that have nothing to do with the subject at hand, whether it's Isabel Godin or the expedition that led to her marriage. Very disappointing on so many levels.
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on 21 January 2008
Obviously well researched, full of interesting facts, but as a flowing narrative this is but not in the same league as e.g. Dava Sobell's Longitude. My wife gave up on it, and being a Yorkshire girl and widely read, will usually persevere to the bitter end to get her money's worth. I can't see this having universal appeal except to the studious. Borrow a copy. (Sorry Mr Whitaker).
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on 23 December 2011
Geodesy, the study of the shape of the Earth, is not an obvious subject for popular history. But since Dava Sobel's Longitude broke the trail in 1995, there have been a number of outstanding books on the topic, notably John Keay's The Great Arc (2000) and Ken Alder's The Measure of All Things (2002). Robert Whitaker's The Mapmakers Wife (2004) is a more recent candidate for the Sobel Prize.

It describes the 1735 expedition to South America organised by the French Academy of Sciences. The question the expedition was designed to settle was the most controversial scientific question of the day: whether the Earth is spherical. Newton's theory predicted that the earth would be slightly flattened at the poles; by contrast the French map maker Cassini held that it was elongated ('like a pot bellied man wearing a tight belt'). The South American expedition did provide an answer (Newton was right), but it took ten years and resulted in several deaths; working conditions were excruciating.

On the whole, I don't think the book is as successful as the other titles mentioned above. Whitaker has a regrettable tendency to throw in great chunks of background material: in one chapter there is a potted history of Spain (back to A.D. 711), in another a review of Amazonian explorers, in another an overextended survey of geodesy. Meanwhile, the action stalls. Some idea of the extent of this problem may be gained from the fact that the expedition is just setting off from France on page 98. The book could have been half the length without serious loss.

Second, while the prose is serviceable, it is not stylish. There are many redundancies ('historical record', 'inventory list', 'mathematically calculate', 'inner psychological strength'); there is the descent to playground language ('This upset La Condamine and Bouguer, for it meant he was piddling away the expedition's cash'); but worst are the mixed metaphors ('The decline in the textile industry caused by a flood of cheap imports from Europe was having a domino effect'). Were the editors asleep?

Set against this, the story of Isabel Godin's trek through the Amazonian jungle is a remarkable one. The chapters which deal with this (the last three) are by the far the best. It is a shame you have to plough through so much to get to them.

It's not bad; but Sobel, Keay and Alder are better.
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on 16 October 2014
The supplier was excellent but the book was terrible. It did not meet the synopsis and publicity blurb at all. A disjointed history book masquerading as a novel.
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