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This reading group guide forFinding Emilie includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with authorLaurel Corona. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What does the reader learn about the two great influences on Lili’s life, Baronne Lomont and Julie de Bercy, from the letters in the prologue? About the Marquis du Châtelet and his relationship with Emilie?
2. Early in the book, Delphine is victimized by her social environment, but also masterful at triumphing over it. What in her personality and behavior accounts for this? How does Lili’s temperament make her also a victim and victor?
3. Why is the Jardin de Roi so important to Lili? Have you ever had a place of refuge? What effect did it have on your life?
4. Do the political and scientific views discussed in Julie’s salon and elsewhere in the novel resonate in our world today?
5. “The truth is all that matters, all that is really permanent.” Do you agree? Did Emilie apply her philosophy well in real life? Can anyone?
6. What do you think of Rousseau’s idea that our upbringing is deliberately intended to deform us to fit the society we live in? Is this the source of much of our own unease and discomfort?
7. Emilie du Châtelet says in her “Discourse on Happiness” that it would be better to figure out how to be happy in the situation we face than try to change it, and that the happiest people are those who desire the least change in their lot. What does she mean? Is it good advice?
8. Toward the end of the book Lili realizes, “I’d have to matter to myself first, before I could expect anything good to happen.” Is this true?
9. When Lili sees Delphine’s and her own daughter standing in the doorway in the closing scene of the novel, she understands how much Julie must have loved them both. If you are a parent yourself, how did having your own children affect how you saw your own parents?
10. Have you ever had the feeling you were helped by departed loved ones? If so, how?
11. Lili’s Meadowlark stories reflect her fears and dilemmas. What are some of these, and how do they shape what she writes?
2. Go to www.visitvoltaire.com for information about Voltaire, Emilie du Châtelet, and the Château de Cirey. There are also links to hotels and restaurants in the area if you feel like taking your book club on an adventure to France!
4. Visit the author’s website, www.laurelcorona.com, to read about her adventures in France researching Finding Emilie and to find out more about her other historical novels.
A CONVERSATION WITH LAUREL CORONA
Julie de Bercy is a fascinating character who created a balance between adhering to conventions of society and advancing modern thinking in the novel. Did you base her character on a historical figure?
Julie de Bercy is entirely my creation. One of the main outlets for aristocratic women of great intellect in this era was to host a salon, and many of the most renowned women in their day were salonnières. Madame de l’Espinasse and Madame Geoffrin, who attend Julie’s funeral, are real people, as is Madame de Graffigny, the houseguest at Cirey whom Emilie found so tedious. It’s a challenge for historical novelists to set up a plot that has their protagonists, especially the female ones, interacting plausibly with a wide range of interesting and important real-life figures, and Julie ’s salon seemed a good way to accomplish this.
While Lili is the main character in Finding Emilie, it is also Emilie du Châtelet’s story. Did you originally intend to intersperse scenes from the past and the present, depicting both Emilie and Lili, or is this dual narrative something that developed during the writing process?
I knew from the outset that I needed to find a way to bring in Emilie’s biography, because her mother is what makes Lili’s story singular. The challenge was that the reader has to be far more informed about Emilie than her daughter is. I decided the only way to do this was to intersperse vignettes about Emilie with the main narrative of Lili’s story. This way, the reader is finding Emilie before Lili does, realizing how important that knowledge is to Lili, and cheering her on to find Emilie herself.
What was it about Emilie that first captured your interest? What can modern-day women learn from her?
I first heard of Emilie du Châtelet only as a footnote to Voltaire, but when I learned she had played a significant role in introducing Newtonian science to the French intelligentsia, I wanted to know more about her. I assumed she would fit the stereotype of the corseted-and-bewigged snob I imagine from portraits of aristocratic women of her time, but instead I found a flawed and fabulous woman surging with life, intellect, and passions of all sorts, blazing through life prepared to regret some of her decisions but making them anyway.
The main thing I think modern women can learn from her is gratitude. We inhabit not only a much more open, tolerant, and inclusive world, but the tools we have for exploring that world are so much more advanced. Every time I hear about a breakthrough in physics, I wonder what Emilie would make of it. Today she might be a Nobel Prize winner in a state-of-the-art laboratory, instead of having to do her work in near-secret and watch others take credit for it because her interests were not considered proper for a woman. I particularly enjoyed adapting from Voltaire ’s servant Longchamp’s memoir the incident of the broken axle and the night spent looking up at the winter sky. In it Emilie and Voltaire talk about the ignorance their era had surmounted, and what the future would make of their own errors. That’s always a good vantage point to have—that we too must be prepared for our most cherished views to be proven wrong.
Tell us about your research trip to France. What did you find most striking about the Château de Cirey, where Voltaire and Emilie lived together for so many years?
The immediately striking thing about Cirey is how remote it is. I’d traveled in France before, mostly to heavily visited areas, but I’d never been to the Champagne region in northeastern France, and I was surprised at how tiny and scattered the villages were. Many of them are little more than a few buildings on both sides of a road passing through, but even these roads are not going to towns of appreciable size. It must initially have been very difficult for the highly sociable and urbane Emilie and Voltaire to adjust to life there, but eventually they found it suitable for their work and they kept it full of lively company.
The most striking things about the château were its modest size (Voltaire’s home at Ferney is even smaller) and its rather odd shape. The house belonged to Emilie’s husband’s family, and he apparently didn’t mind his wife living with her lover there, because Voltaire was using his own money to expand and refurbish the house. I guess they considered it a fair trade! The château looks half-finished in some ways. It has a second story that goes only halfway across the main part of the house, and the last wing in the architectural plans was never built. This sense of a work in progress added to the feeling that at any moment Voltaire or Emilie might come bursting through the door to see who’s come for a visit.
The owner of the house gave me a private tour before the summer season, when it is open to the public, and told me that the few tourists who visit are mostly American or Korean. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that most know little to nothing about Emilie. They come because they want to see the house where Voltaire lived, close enough at the time to the French border so he could escape in a hurry from the law. Perhaps now that readers are “finding” Emilie, the purpose of visits to Cirey will change!
Why did you decide to include the tales of Meadowlark and Tom in the narrative? At what point did you write these adventures?
I hadn’t originally intended to use these stories so extensively, but when I got about fifty pages into the first draft, I realized that the story I saw ahead was really quite dark. I decided I needed to lighten it up both for myself as I wrote, and eventually for the reader as well. I saw the Meadowlark stories both as comic interludes and as a means of watching Lili grapple with the concerns of each stage of her life.
Lili spends time with the Comte de Buffon and Jean-Étienne in the Jardin de Roi, the king’s garden, in Paris. Did such a place actually exist? What was its purpose?
It is very much there, renamed the Jardin des Plantes after the French Revolution. It is bigger than in Buffon’s day, but still laid out essentially the same. Its original purpose, medical research, is still honored by some plantings in the area where I imagined JeanÉtienne’s garden, but for most visitors, it’s a pleasant place for a stroll, ringed by museums and the Paris zoo.
In the novel you write that some of Voltaire’s published ideas, in fact, came from Emilie du Châtelet. Were you aware of this aspect of the philosopher and his work, or did it come as a surprise to you? To what extent did Emilie contribute to Voltaire’s work?
I was not aware that Voltaire took himself very seriously as a scientist. He saw recognition as a man of science as adding to, or surpassing, the status he could gain as a man of letters. Most scholars now are comfortable with attributing the difficult and complex scientific thinking in his papers to Emilie. In the case of any collaboration where conflicting claims of authorship are made, the simplest way to sort it out is to ask what each accomplished independently of the other. In Voltaire’s case, he produced no work as a scientist before or after he lived with Emilie. Emilie was the only one of the two who had spent years studying the sciences and mathematics before they met, and she went on, after their relationship became more distant, to produce her greatest works without his help.
One of Newton’s laws of physics states that an object at rest will remain at rest unless an external force is applied to it. What was the force that set you on the path to novel writing?
What sent me off on a different trajectory (and at much greater speed) was my experience writing my first full-length book, Until Our Last Breath (St. Martin’s Press 2008). I had written a number of shorter books for younger readers, and I felt very comfortable moving up to the length and scope of the new book, but I was unhappy with the constraints of the genre of narrative non-fiction. Having to accept the limitations of known facts was a constraint I wasn’t comfortable with, because I think the truth is sometimes better served by a mix of imagination and research. I wanted to be creative about filling in what no one thought to document, and historical fiction is the perfect way to do that.
On your website, you state: “My goal as a historical novelist is to provide . . . the reader with high-quality fiction about women and the forgotten and undervalued roles they played in their societies.” Why is sharing the stories of women in particular something you’re inspired to do?
I have always asked, “where were the women?” when learning about any historical era. There were so many of us, and I don’t believe for a minute we were nearly as invisible, or as limited in our roles, as most histories would suggest. It makes more sense that our stories have been forgotten than that they were never there to be told. Women of every era I have researched were far more adventurous, intellectual, heroic, and accomplished than we have been led to believe. We have to make a choice whether to accept that women’s stories won’t be told because we lack sufficient facts, or tell them anyway, using our imaginations and our ability to make strong inferences from what is known. There’s a difference between the facts and the truth, and when the facts are not known, the truth must served by fiction, or not be told at all.
Why do you think historical fiction is so popular with readers?
People today are so busy, and they want to get high value out of what little discretionary time they have. Good historical fiction is by nature a “smart read,” because one is learning about people, places, and events in the past within the context of a compelling story. Historical fiction, in the hands of an author who takes the factual foundation of his or her work seriously, is the perfect illustration of Horace’s ancient adage, that literature should both delight and instruct.
What time period will you be exploring in your next book?
My next novel is set in Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century. People know the year 1492 because of Columbus, but many do not know that several other momentous events involving Ferdinand and Isabella also happened that year. The first was the fall of the Muslim Caliphate of Granada and the end of centuries of Muslim political presence in Iberia. The second was the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. My novel covers the period from Henry the Navigator in Portugal, to Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain, from the point of view of a Jewish woman who is witness to those tumultuous times.