Friday, May 13, 2011
The Philosopher's Kiss by Peter Prange
Paris, 1747. Betrayed by God and humanity, Sophie moves to the seething capital of the kingdom. To survive, she works at Café Procope, the meeting place for freethinkers and revolutionaries. Against her will she falls deeply in love with one of the regular customers: Denis Diderot, the famed philosopher and a married man. He and his colleagues are planning the most dangerous book in the world since the appearance of the Bible: an encyclopedia. Even more explosive are the covert references in the Encyclopedia that threaten to undermine both the monarchy and the church. But Sophie soon realizes that the stakes are even higher for her personally. At risk are her right to freedom, love, and happiness.
Sophie is an illegitimate daughter of the seamstress Madeline and a traveling sales person Dorval (who is now deceased). The book opens as Sophie is preparing for her First Communion, which she was very nervous for so her mother gave her some homemade remedy. Despite the medicine, she vomits up "the body of Christ" in front of the whole church. The night before, a mysterious man in a plumed hat tried to seduce Madeline, who rejected him in no uncertain terms. This man, jealous and rejected by Madeline, goes and declares to the authorities that she used magic to enchant him into wanting her, and used Sophie's vomiting of the host as an example of her sorcery. So poor Madeline is sent to the stake while Sophie is made to watch.
Ten years later Sophie is working at Cafe Procope in Paris, a favorite hang out of the philosophers. There she meets philosopher Denis Diderot and policeman Antoine Sartine. Sartine was monitoring the philosophers for dangerous ideas, of which Diderot's Encyclopedia was one of the most dangerous to the church. Sartine makes advances to Sophie, as part of his grand plan for advancing his career. However, Sophie falls for Diderot's charismatic stories and ideas. Sophie learns that Diderot is married with a son, and a mistress on the side, she flees a life like her mother's and agrees to marry Sartine.
Sartine agrees to look into who accused Sophie's mother of sorcery, and while he find out his identity, he decides to lie to Sophie and claimed he found out nothing. Sartine is still hunting out evidence to arrest those working on the Encyclopedia for their dangerous ideas (ideas thought to threaten the church and/or state). Sophie finds some story by Diderot in Sartine's desk at home, and when he finds her reading it, he tells her that he knows she loves Diderot and accuses of being his mistress. Sophie wasn't, but she leaves his house immediately and truly becomes his mistress.
After leaving her husband, Sophie works for Messr Poisson. This portion of the book is fairly repetitive, with her relationship with Diderot, his work on the Encyclopedia and Sophie trying to help with it, and the Police trying to arrest who they can identify as spreading the dangerous ideas. During this period, Sophie meets Madame du Pompadour, sister of Messr Poisson, who invites her work at her pleasure palace, which Sophie declines. However, once Sophie learns Diderot values the Encyclopedia more than their relationship, the pregnant Sophie turns to Pompadour for help.
Since the Encyclopedia was first being printed, Pompadour had her finger on all the possible dangerous texts by recommending her favorite Malesherbes as the state censor. Both of them become supporters of the Encyclopedia. After Sophie becomes a lady in waiting for Pompadour, she becomes a mistress of Malesherbes. He in time wants to adopt Sophie's son and give him the educational benefits his money can buy. For this, he pushes Sartine to divorce Sophie, since he is technically the father of record. Shortly after, in an attempt to strike a blow to the Encyclopedia, Sartine finally identifies the man in the plumed hat as Malesherbes. The adoption doesn't go through, and Sophie ends their relationship, and Malesherbes resigns. Soon after, Madame du Pompadour dies, and the Encyclopedia loses its two strongest supporters at court. In an effort to prevent Diderot from going to prison or being execute it, Sophie works a secret plan with the publisher to censor the encyclopedia. Diderot is outraged at first, but then he gets over it and they reunite.
Overall, I liked this book. It gave a good view of what was going on ideologically in Paris, in the fifty years prior to the French Revolution, and you can see how some of the events and the ideas presenting in The Philosopher's Kiss lead to the greater complaints later on. I didn't really know much about Madame du Pompadour other than she was Louis's mistress (and what could be gotten from that Doctor Who episode), so I liked learning about her involvement in helping the encyclopedia come into being.
The novel does seem a bit repetitive at times. But I think this is because when each volume of the encyclopedia was printed, it outraged the church and/or state, and someone was threatened with or was arrested and imprisoned, and faced censorship issues. The editors kept trying to push what they could get away with, so the same things kept happening.
Sophie was a real person, according to the author's note, however not much is known about her, or what relationship she actually had with Diderot, other than she existed and knew one another. As a character, I don't really like her very much. Probably because she keeps going back to Diderot, who reads at best as a jerk, or at worst more than a little bit of an a-hole. I don't think I have a great affinity to any of the characters. But to me, they almost seem to be secondary, while the Encyclopedia seems to be THE main character, as nearly all of the events covered in the book revolve around it. I also don't think the title helps it much. I half expected it to have a stronger romance, or depiction of it, but it didn't. The romance between Sophie and Diderot is fairly tame in the telling, and doesn't read like a romance novel.
I would recommend this if you have an interest in the French Revolution and the precursors that lead up to it, and if you have an interest in the philosophy of this time period and their influences.
I give this a firm 4 stars.