(2011) is a young adult alternate history novel by author Laurel Corona. Set in France in the second half of the 18th century, in the decades preceding the French Revolution, the novel invents a life for the daughter of real-life mathematician and scientist Emilie du Chatelet, who died just after childbirth. In the novel, instead of dying in early childhood, the daughter grows up not knowing much about her unconventional and sometimes scandalous mother. The young woman’s life becomes a quest to search for the truth about Emilie, as the novel’s title suggests—but in doing her best to learn about her mother, the daughter finds herself.
In real life, Emilie du Chatelet was a brilliant and accomplished woman who mastered the work of Newton, rewriting it in a more accessible way for less well-versed readers. Du Chatelet was married but had a series of affairs—for one thing, she was a longtime lover and close friend of Voltaire. In 1749, six days after giving birth to her daughter Stanislas Adelaide or Lili as she would be known, the product of yet another affair, du Chatelet complained of a headache while working on yet another of Newton’s writings. She died a few hours later. Lili died a little over a year later.
In the novel, however, Lili survives. When her mother dies, Lili goes to live with her mother’s friend and Lili’s godmother, Julie de Bercy. When Lili is born, Julie is pregnant with her own daughter Delphine, so Lili and Delphine grow up like sisters. Lili’s father half-acknowledges her existence—he gives her enough money to live on, but never visits or writes. Instead, Lili’s upbringing is monitored by the extremely strict Baronne Lomont, her father’s sister-in-law. Baronne Lomont is committed to making sure Lili abides by society’s oppressive and restrictive protocols for women.
When Lili and Delphine reach school age, they are sent to a convent. There, Lili realizes that the inquisitive, curious, and scientific bend of her mind goes against everything that women are supposed to be. Intelligence and reason in women are anathemas to propriety—women are supposed to be colorful decorative objects, not rivals to male intellectual achievement. For Delphine, the strictures imposed in the convent are uncomfortable but manageable. But for Lili, the atmosphere is stifling and torturous. She simply cannot tamp down her desire to know and understand, and so ends up provoking the ire of the convent sisters. As her punishments grow increasingly extreme, Julie de Bercy finally comes to Lili’s rescue.
Julie removes Lili and Delphine from the convent and brings them to Paris, where the de Bercy house is a salon for the intellectuals, philosophers, and scientists working in the Age of Enlightenment. Lili thrives in this environment where new concepts and discoveries are shared by the historical figures who made them. Corona introduces readers to a wide assortment of the great men of the day in this way.
Still, something is missing for Lili. She has grown up completely sheltered from knowledge about her mother but soon discovers that she shares both her mother’s appearance and her lively mind. Intrigued by this missing figure, Lili wants to learn as much as she can about the woman who gave birth to her. However, Lili’s aunt Baronne Lomont is reluctant to reveal anything about the scandalous Emilie, worried that the more Lili knows, the more tainted she will become by her mother’s past. This kind of association is already making it difficult for Lili to navigate the complex politicking taking place at Versailles, so the Baronne worries that more knowledge will make Lili’s life even harder.
Eager to rid herself of having to care for her brother’s out-of-wedlock child, the Baronne arranges a financially lucrative but deeply unpleasant marriage for Lili with a man who expects his wife to be basically a piece of furniture. Horrified, Julie does her best to postpone the match until Lili can find another man to marry—someone who will support her desire to pursue scientific research.
In the meantime, Lili meets and gets to know Voltaire. She wants desperately for the witty and urbane author to be her father, but he gently lets her know that she is not his daughter. Nevertheless, he shares his memories of Emilie with Lili, becoming more of a father figure to her than anyone else she has ever known.
In the end, Lili meets and falls in love with a young man who is just as dedicated to science and mathematics as Lili, and whose views on women are quite progressive for the time. The novel points to this marriage as a happy ending, without ever making it clear to readers that within a few years the French Revolution will dissolve whatever stability these nobles now have.