It is 1749, and brilliant and scandalous scientist and mathematician Emilie du Châtelet dies suddenly, and only a week after giving birth. Her daughter, Lili, is sent away to be raised by Julie de Bercy and the strict Baronne Lomont. Finding Emilie is told through Lili’s eyes, and as she navigates through a changing society during the era of the Enlightenment, she discovers her mother’s rich intellectual and philosophical legacy and uses it to take hold of her own life.
Finding Emilie is my favorite kind of historical fiction novel. Laurel Corona explains in her introduction that her aim as a historical fiction writer is to answer the question of “What might have happened?” while keeping as true to the period as possible, and she does exactly that. The oppression Emilie and Lili felt as intelligent and questioning thinkers in an era where women were expected to be little more than sparkling ornaments was palpable, and I loved the various foils that Ms. Corona created, both human (Lili and her foster sister Delphine, who conformed a bit more to society’s expectations) and atmospheric (the rigid atmosphere of the convent vs. the enlightened discussions at Julie de Bercy’s salon, the darkness of Baronne Lomont’s home vs. the freedom at the Jardin de Roi). The ideas and discoveries of the Enlightenment are introduced into the narrative by the philosophers and scientists themselves, which serves the dual purpose of teaching the reader something new while giving the lesson great context and color. I also liked that Ms. Corona tempered the moments of reversal with the characters’ various gains so that I got the feeling of suspense without getting frustrated by a constant storm of bad news.
Lili reminded me a bit of Harry Potter at points. Like Harry, Lili had a brilliant and famous parent who died tragically but left a network of supportive people behind who loved her, first because she was Emilie’s child but then because of the bright and sensitive person she became in her own right. Also like Harry, Lili had to lose her safety nets (and cruelly) before she could come to terms with her past and live her life. And like Harry, I was fully invested in Lili’s story and rooted for her every step of the way.
I enjoyed every second of Finding Emilie, from the opening sentences to the supplemental fairy tale/satire at the back, and I highly recommend it.