The Philosopher's Kiss
Peter Prange
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Buy *The Philosopher's Kiss* by Peter Prangeonline

The Philosopher's Kiss
Peter Prange
432 pages
April 2012
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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International author Peter Prange answers questions about the first encyclopedias with The Philosopher's Kiss, an intriguing historical fiction that brings to life the Age of Enlightenment. The compelling character of Sophie Volland, an innocent child of eleven happily living in the French countryside when the book begins, serves as a symbol of the struggle for knowledge versus superstitions promoted by an all-powerful Catholic Church that is supported by the ruling class.

Sophie has an atypical family for 1747—unmarried parents who not only know how to read themselves but teach her to read as well. Add practicing herbal medicine to the mix, and Sophie’s mother finds herself an easy target for revenge and archaic punishment. Prange’s flowing prose (via Steve Murray’s superb translation), provides a poignant climax to the scene that forever changes Sophie’s life:

“A little later the eternal blue of the sky revealed itself between two mountains of clouds; the rift grew rapidly, as if a great curtain were parting on high, and as the crowd in the square gradually dispersed, a magnificent rainbow arched over the countryside. Like a sigh escaping from the earth, a fresh breeze moved through the valley. The spectacle was over, the sin of the seamstress Volland atoned for, and her daughter, Sophie, could finally leave the site, her heart broken and her limbs heavy as lead.”
Eventually Sophie lands in Paris, serving hot chocolate to philosophers whose names are weighted with meaning even today. Despite her firm intentions, Sophie falls in love with Denis Diderot, a superb spinner of an intricate tale that feeds Sophie’s parched imagination. The author then clearly portrays the complications of a Parisian philosopher providing for his family and a demanding mistress while romancing a beguiling waitress.
“But none of this agitation reached Diderot’s ear. What did he care for the worries of everyday life? He was concerned with the happiness of the whole world!”
Indeed, it is during this time that Diderot’s publisher discusses an opportunity to translate an English encyclopedia. Diderot and his friend Monsieur d’Alembert persuade the publisher to back the weighty task of an expanded French encyclopedia, one that will challenge the domination of religious beliefs—particularly the idea that the promise of the hereafter makes up for current conditions. Once the secret of Sophie’s ability to read is revealed, her life transforms as she becomes an integral part of preparing the massive text. She joins the other contributors, aiming to make clear common practices, science and math, and even complicated emotions. The monarchy (pressured by the church), financial difficulties, betrayals, arrests—all conspire to delay the encyclopedia’s completion and delivery.

Despite the dangerous tentacles of the secular and religious, Denis becomes the driving force behind the effort to complete the clamored-for encyclopedia. He grows stronger during this fight to accurately explain the day-to-day and the mysterious to the masses. Behind the scenes, Sophie and Denis conspire with others for one another, all while also admirably striving to control their own destiny. Both aim for freedom and the ability to love whom they choose, rather than accept the tethers of the church or the intrigues of Versailles.

Prange skillfully portrays not only his main protagonists, their motivations and complex feelings; he also depicts the vast number of peripheral characters with true dimension. At the hands of a lesser author, these ancillary figures would have become unforgivable buffoons rather than pitiable characters dealing with the constraints of their era and personal demons.

Murray is an American translator. Under the pseudonym Reg Keeland, he translated Stieg Larsson’s millennium trilogy starting with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Prange, a popular novelist and nonfiction writer, lives in Germany and, not surprisingly, has a doctorate in philosophy and moral history.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Leslie Raith, 2013

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