Monday, April 11, 2011

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Finding Emilie by Laurel Corona

When I heard Laurel Corona was about to release a new book, I mentally added it to my TBR list because I enjoyed Penelope’s Daughter so much. Since my list is so dauntingly long, I was content to wait until the release date--until details began seeping out, intriguing me more and more. For example, the book is set just before the French Revolution. Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution has made me more curious than usual about books from this period.

And then I learned that the book centered on two brilliant women of the Enlightenment, one of whom was completely real, Emilie du Châtelet, the marquise du Châtelet. Emilie was a noblewoman and a mathematician-scientist. (The second protagonist is her daughter.) Now I couldn’t wait. Imagine being a math geek girl in the 1700's! How did she do it?

So, Finding Emilie jumped to a must-read position on my list. To my delight, I got my hands on a review copy. (Thank you to the publisher, Simon & Schuster.)

Emilie du Châtelet managed to break just about every rule of polite French society but the people who loved her, in particular her husband the marquis, protected her from the consequences of her unconventional lifestyle. That is, every consequence but one. At the advanced maternal age of forty-two, she had a baby girl, Lili. Emilie died a few days later. In real life, Lili barely survived babyhood. In Finding Emilie, Lili’s life takes center stage.

This novel explores the question: what would life be like for a young gentlewoman who was extraordinarily gifted but constrained by societal pressures and by the burden of what her mother had been? Lili lives in her mother’s shadow--in that of her mother’s accomplishments and in that of her mother’s scandalous lifestyle. As a child, she is protected from too much knowledge, but as she matures and must make choices about her own future, it’s only natural that Lili needs to learn more. She finds both inspiration and warning in her mother’s life story.

The novel is an insightful character study. The reader delves into the hearts of Lili and her closest friend Delphine as they grow from convent girls of eleven years old into marriageable young women whose place in society depends upon finding a suitable match. The book provides an intricate view of court manners during eighteenth century France. Lili is very much aware of the importance of behaving properly, of marrying well. And yet she refuses to let her true self disappear.

Lili’s story is interspersed with chapters showing snippets from the life of her mother. From those snippets, the reader is able to reconstruct the life of the brilliant Emilie du Châtelet (longtime mistress of and collaborator with Voltaire!) and come to a conclusion about whether she would have been happier if she’d hidden her intellect and lived more conventionally.

This is a novel about personal growth and self-discovery. Although rich with period details, it is not a political book. There is an undercurrent of awareness of the unfairness of the French economic system and of the censorship that threatens Voltaire from time to time, but the book doesn’t dwell on these. More attention is paid to gender inequality. Lili empathizes with the oppressed because she, too, is oppressed.

While modern readers won’t relate directly to many of the highly stylized conventions of the day, there are underlying timeless truths. Mean-spirited gossip still exists. Reputations can still be ruined. Competition over an object of affection can turn ugly. Hearts are broken every day. Friendship and love still find a way to triumph.

Although Finding Emilie is not marketed as YA, YA historical fiction readers may also want to give it a look. Lili is a young woman searching for a way to remain true to herself while living in a society that is trying to mold her into something she is not. She is a loyal friend, but sometimes she feels alone in the world. She wants to be loved but for who she is, not for the corseted, panniered, mannered person she must pretend to be in society. Young and older adults can appreciate Lili’s struggles and enjoy her triumphs.

Come back tomorrow to read what guest blogger Laurel Corona has to say about dress and politics!

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