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Passionate Minds by David Bodanis

Passionate Minds - David Bodanis

This is a frothy historical biography best described by its title. Unfortunately it does not live up to either the dramatic promise of its subtitle, or to the serious intentions stated in its preface. In that preface, the author bemoans the lack of recognition of early 18th century aristocratic French scientist Emilie du Chatelet, stating that she was written out of the canon by men who didn’t believe a woman could make serious contributions, and that the society hostesses and later feminist writers who might have championed her lacked the technical knowledge to understand her work, with the result that female biographers just focused on her wild sex life. Bodanis then proceeds to tell a story of du Chatelet’s life focused on her wild sex life, with only brief segments about science that provided little enlightenment to this reader.

In particular, Bodanis is enamored of du Chatelet’s tumultuous 15-year affair with Voltaire, and structures the book around that. It’s almost a dual biography (to the point that my library shelves it as a biography of Voltaire), except that Voltaire outlived du Chatelet by decades and those years aren’t covered in this book. Bodanis seems attached to the notion that this relationship provided du Chatelet with the confidence and support she needed to engage in scientific work, but it seemed to me that much of the evidence he provides argues against this conclusion. For instance, in one episode, Voltaire decides to enter a scientific competition, and du Chatelet spends her days assisting him with his experiments, but for some reason feels she can’t tell him where he’s going wrong, and meanwhile secretly stays up late every night working on her own submission, which she hides from him and ultimately mails off with the assistance of her extremely laid-back husband, who appears genuinely indifferent throughout to the fact that she’s living openly with another man. Which of these people is actually providing useful support, and which one has become an obstacle? I came away from the book with the impression that du Chatelet’s penchant for falling wildly in love with various men was a tragic distraction from her work, perhaps in part due to the author’s focus.

It’s a focus, in the end, that involves compressing complicated events into such short segments that I found them a bit difficult to keep track of, while lovingly expanding on descriptions of emotions and relationship dilemmas. These people wrote constantly, so I don’t think Bodanis is speculating, but it does come across as frothy. Interestingly, in the acknowledgements he says that while writing the book, he sent it out in installments to friends, and they and their friends and coworkers all eagerly signed up for more. But then, he says, that draft, nearly twice the length of the book he ultimately published, “wasn’t quite right. . . . There was to much to-ing and fro-ing, too much textual analysis and historical background, and too much elaboration of science and the biographer’s evidence.” I for one suspect I would have thought more of this book if it had included all that stuff, and the contrast between the word-of-mouth excitement Bodanis describes around his draft and the small number of readers who have rated the completed version on Goodreads makes me suspect it’s not just me, and what he cut was more essential than he realized.

Ultimately, this was an interesting book that I don’t regret reading, and it had a great start, but after 60 pages or so I began to fall out of love with it and never regained that level of enjoyment. Great material, but perhaps not the best possible treatment of it.