Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict is a fictionalised account of the life of Mileva Marić, who was Albert Einstein's first wife. It's based partly on historical records and letters sent between the couple, but also includes a dollop of conjecture, as the author notes in her afterword.

A vivid and mesmerizing novel about the extraordinary woman who married and worked with one of the greatest scientists in history.

What secrets may have lurked in the shadows of Albert Einstein’s fame? His first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, was more than the devoted mother of their three children—she was also a brilliant physicist in her own right, and her contributions to the special theory of relativity have been hotly debated for more than a century.

In 1896, the extraordinarily gifted Mileva is the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. There, she falls for charismatic fellow student Albert Einstein, who promises to treat her as an equal in both love and science. But as Albert’s fame grows, so too does Mileva’s worry that her light will be lost in her husband’s shadow forever.

A literary historical in the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein reveals a complicated partnership that is as fascinating as it is troubling.

This book caught my eye because— well why wouldn't it? As a woman and as an (astro-) physicist myself, why wouldn't I be interested in reading about a lesser-known woman who was so close to some of the most fundamental progressions in physics a century ago? And while I don't generally read non-fiction outside of work, this was a novelised account, so it didn't count as non-fiction, right? That's not to say I didn't have some problems with it.

First off, I didn't like the first person narrator voice of Mileva. I thought that as a woman in the same field — albeit more than a century later — I should at least have something in common with her. But aside from her professed love of physics I couldn't find any commonalities. I was also surprised at how much discussion of hair and appearance there was from someone who I would have expected to not care about those things beyond what was strictly necessary as mandated by society. I did not connect with the character at all, although I do admit I became invested in her plight as I read further.

That investment mainly paid off in making me want to shout at the page and tell her not to make certain poor decisions. That said, I was a bit disappointed to read, in the afterword, that the story was more fictional than I had hoped (some of the less consequential and/or more mysterious events were made up/extrapolated). This of course includes all the private interactions with Albert that weren't referenced in their letters to each other. Which brings me to the most controversial part of this book: Albert's treatment of Mileva. The way the author writes it, there were a lot of red flags in the beginning, but I can see how they were easy to overlook in a state of youthful inexperience. That didn't stop me being angry at Albert on Mileva's behalf, especially when he grew resentful of her for both being a housewife and daring to want to be more than a housewife. Those interactions, while somewhat upsetting, were the more interestingly written part of the book.

The other thing that bothered me, fiction aside, were some of the descriptions of physics. I generally didn't find them to be that great. I mean, the first description of special relativity was terrible, although the second one (when it came up again later) was an improvement. It was disappointing since it ought to have been quite central to the story. Some of the general physics chatter was superficial enough to not feel actively wrong, but... well, not everyone can be everything, but it was still disappointing.

Perhaps this book is best taken as historical fiction and not read for the physics aspects. As I said, I didn't find the characterisation of the protagonist very satisfying (and I didn't find her voice at all believable at first), but others might not have the same issues. It was overall an interesting read and I can imagine a passable Hollywood movie being made of it. I recommend it to readers that find the premise interesting, but with the caveats discussed above.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Sourcebooks
Series: no
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Netgalley

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