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Passionate Minds    by David Bodanis order for
Passionate Minds
by David Bodanis
Order:  USA  Can
Crown, 2006 (2006)

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* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Speak of Voltaire, and most people instantly recognize the name and make a literary connection: Candide. 'Ah, yes,' a person will say, 'I remember reading that fellow's book in school. Didn't it have something to do with Portugal and some other places, the plague and some other problems, and somebody who wants to spend the rest of his life doing nothing other than tending his garden? Great story!'

Speak of Emilie de Châtelet, and most people - myself included until several weeks ago - will have a blank expression. The name simply does not register. However, in many ways, especially as it relates to intellectual and scientific history, that name may be more important than Voltaire's!

Now, along comes David Bodanis, author of one of the most fascinating historical biographies of the past several years, which is entitled Passionate Minds: The great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring the scientist Emilie de Châtelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world.

Well, you have to admit it. That subtitle alone - intriguing and expansive as it is - ought to be reason enough for you to hurry out, get a copy of the book, and find out what on earth was going on between Voltaire (the fellow with whom we are familiar) and Emilie de Châtelet (the seductively charming aristocrat 'who would one day popularize Newton's arcane ideas and pave the way for Einstein's theories').

In 1733, when the world was convulsing within the political, intellectual, and scientific labor pains of the Enlightenment, the poet and philosopher Voltaire ('the vulnerable romantic') met a twenty-seven year old woman (Emilie de Châtelet) whose beguiling beauty, 'nimble conversation, and unusual brilliance' led the man 'then in his late thirties, to wonder, 'Why did you only reach me so late?'' It was then that the controversial and politically embattled poet and the supremely unconventional and remarkably bold intellectual 'fell immediately and passionately in love.'

Through reading Bodanis's highly recommended dual biography, we as readers experience more than a torrid and passionate love affair between two people in 18th century France - although that alone is sufficient reason for reading Passionate Minds. We also get to experience exactly what the title promises: passionate minds. This is intellectual history at its very best, and with Bodanis as our guide we get to eavesdrop on Voltaire and de Châtelet - at their isolated chateau at Circey - as they 'conducted scientific experiments, entertained many of the leading thinkers of the burgeoning scientific revolution, and developed radical ideas about the monarchy, the nature of free will, the subordination of women, and the separation of church and state.' Yet there is more to discover! The lovers endured and survived political intrigues, they experienced and escaped covert missions against them, they somehow tolerated and prevailed against deadly attempts to censor them, and - just to make things even more exciting - they frantically crossed the countryside numerous times in their escapes from armed and ruthless enemies.

All good things, of course, must come to an end. That was the fate of Voltaire's and Emilie de Châtelet's wondrous and exhilerating affair after fifteen years; clandestine affairs, personal jealousies, and idiosyncratic self-consciousness would become wedges between the couple, although the two remained friends. However, death - in childbirth - would ultimately end any possibility of complete reconciliation.

And David Bodanis's wondrous and exhilarating narrative also comes to end, but it does not end until readers have been sumptuously entertained by two of the most remarkable people you'll ever encounter in a biography. The bottom line is this: You must read Passionate Minds. It will change the way you look at the Enlightenment, Voltaire, and one of the most remarkable women in intellectual and scientific history.

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