Thursday, April 14, 2011

Review: Finding Emilie by Laurel Corona

Spirited, unconventional, brilliant. We generally think of these as compliments but when applied to a young woman during the French Enlightenment, no matter that she was the intellectual superior of many of the leading minds of the day, these were not compliments. Indeed, they were thinly veiled insults. Luckily there were still women who ignored the whispers and mutterings, driven to use their brains and defy convention. This historical fiction posits one such woman, Lili du Chatelet, the daughter of noted French philosopher and intimate of Voltaire, Emilie, the Marquise of Chatelet. Historically Emilie died not long after giving birth to her last daughter and that daughter, Stanislas-Adelaide, called Lili here, died as a toddler. Corona has taken the opportunity to wonder what would have happened if Lili had lived and been gifted with a brain as fleet and adept as her mother's.

Told in two narrative threads, this is both the story of Lili and her desire to be allowed to exercise her intelligence even if she had to stand outside of the norms of the time to do it and of her mother and the circumstances surrounding a brilliant life cut short. The latter storyline shows in brief snapshots between the more detailed tale of Lili's life. After her mother's death, she was raised for a few years by her father's strict, unbending, authoritarian, and unimaginative sister-in-law. Luckily the Baronne's health forces her to turn Lili over to Julie Bercy, a friend and confidante of Lili's late mother Julie's own daughter is Lili's age and the two girls grow up as sisters under the kind and loving tutelage of their Maman. Even luckier, Julie Bercy is an intellectual herself, holding salons and encouraging the girls to think for themselves, nurturing the spark she sees in Lili. She is also an accomplished hostess and able to model for the girls a way in which to live in the world as it is and to still satisfy their curiousity, shine, and find happiness.

The girls are charming and their growth, especially Lili's, from naive children to intuitive adults, is well limned. The difficulty of trying to fit into a society that only wants women to be ornaments when the woman in question wants to match wits with the men had to be incredibly disheartening and Corona does a wonderful job capturing Lili's frustration as she learns to work within and around the constraints placed on her by her sex. The addition of short snippets of Lili's fictional creation, helps to underline the life lessons the girls learn as they grow and also offers them a fanciful escape from their reality as well as hope that they might ultimately escape for real.

Pre-Revolutionary France is fascinating and quite detailed in Corona's presentation here. The minutia of the court and the social niceties are accurately and carefully depicted. The weaving of historical figures with fictional characters works seamlessly and Corona's version of what could possibly have happened to a brilliant daughter of Emilie du Chatelet is entirely plausible. This was a very satisfying read combining both the realities and restrictions of the times with the courage and convictions of a smart, strong-willed young woman who is ultimately encouraged and allowed to thrive.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts