Finding Emilie

Written by Laurel Corona
Review by Vicki Kondelik

Laurel Corona, author of The Four Seasons, an outstanding novel of Vivaldi’s Venice, turns to 18th-century France in her enthralling new novel, Finding Emilie. Emilie du Chatelet, a brilliant physicist, died a few days after giving birth to Lili, the novel’s heroine, who is raised by her mother’s friend, Parisian salon hostess Julie de Bercy, along with Julie’s own daughter, Delphine. The two girls are extremely close, but very different: Delphine loves beautiful dresses and cannot wait to be presented at Versailles, where she hopes to marry an aristocrat, while Lili, who has inherited her mother’s intelligence, wishes to pursue her literary and scientific interests and is much more excited by her conversations with Enlightenment philosophers than by the frivolous world of the court.

As children, she and Delphine board at a convent school where the nuns punish Lili for expressing her Enlightenment thought, which is seen as a threat to Church doctrine. And she must make frequent visits to her mother’s widowed sister-in-law, Baronne Lomont, who insists on a strict Catholic upbringing and, later, wants to force Lili into a marriage with an elderly widower. Lili finds refuge in writing stories about the adventures of a girl named Meadowlark and in her visits to the Jardin de Roi, where she assists the Comte de Buffon in his scientific experiments. Interspersed with Lili’s story are brief chapters about Emilie, her scientific pursuits, and her relationship with Voltaire. Lili, who grew up knowing little of her mother’s life, gradually learns about Emilie and, in the process, discovers her own strength of character.

Eighteenth-century France comes brilliantly to life in this novel, and the fictional Lili seems like a real person, with all her hopes and fears and doubts. This is a masterful depiction of a woman of intellect.