Finding Emilie is a novel of Enlightenment-era France that is partly about a brilliant mathematician named Emilie du Châtelet. At the age of 42, she gave birth to a daughter - Stanislas-Adélaïde - known in the novel as Lili. Emilie died six days later, and her daughter didn’t live to see her second birthday. Finding Emilie imagines what would’ve happened if Stanislas-Adélaïde had lived. Would she have followed in her mother’s footsteps?
Lili is brought up by Julie de Bercy, a friend of Emilie’s. She has a daughter Lili’s age – Delphine – and they are brought up as sisters. Despite her loving environment, Lili feels the loss of her mother keenly and feels abandoned by her father, whose only involvement with her is financial.
To deal with her sorrows, and to entertain Delphine, Lili begins writing chapters of a story called “The Adventures of Meadowlark and Tom.” This story is woven into the narrative - and printed in its entirety at the end of the book - and reflects Lili’s views of the world.
The girls attend a convent school, but Lili begins to question her religious education when she starts attending Julie’s salons. Her guests are some of the most illustrious men in France – men who are despised by the Catholic Church. Lili begins conversing with some of the men, who are impressed by her brilliance, just as they were once captivated by Emilie’s. The salons fuel Lili’s passion for science and philosophy. She is often compared to her mother, but she still knows very little about her.
To complicate matters, Lili struggles against tradition as she matures. She has no desire to marry a man she doesn’t love or become a subservient wife. She also has an obligation to learn courtly manners for visits to Versailles, even though she’d rather study.
Paired with each chapter of Lili’s story is a smaller chapter about Emilie’s life. The reader learns more about Emilie as the story progresses, but it isn’t until Lili turns 18 that she finally discovers the whole truth about her mother. Once she finds Emilie, Lili feels empowered to pursue her own unconventional path.
Finding Emilie is a pleasurable and absorbing novel that explores what happens when the expectations of society conflict with the needs of the self. I recommend this for historical fiction fans in general, but especially for any readers who have some knowledge of the Enlightenment. You may find yourself researching Emilie du Châtelet, along with such contemporaries as Diderot and Voltaire.